When Family and Friends Have a Chronic Illness — Part One

August 8, 2013
What can you do to support friends and family members who are dealing with a chronic illness?

Bouquet of Flowers-closeupIn April, I wrote a three-part post on What to Say When Someone is in Crisis. It was aimed at helping you discover what you could say and do for someone who is going through a time of serious illness or loss — with an expectation that at some point things will return to normal, or almost normal.

Now I am writing four posts that focus on what you can do to support people who are caught in the middle of a chronic condition. As Ken Wilbur notes in True Grit, acute is easy but chronic is hard. As he struggled to support his wife’s five year battle against breast cancer, he often had to recommit himself to being a supportive spouse.

Today, many cancers are viewed as chronic conditions that can be managed with surgery, radiation and drugs. However, the constant struggle to manage them can wear down both the person suffering and those supporting them.

So what do you do when a family member or friend is diagnosed with lupus or fibromyalgia or other long-term illness? How can you best support that person?

This is the story of my friendship with Ivajoy, a colleague and friend who is eighty-four years old. She was once free to visit friends whenever she wished, to attend conferences, to travel, and to have a successful therapy practice.

Now she is totally blind. I have watched her deteriorate in the past four years as she is confined more and more to her house, with constant companions who must wheel her to the table and count out the pills she takes to control whatever ails older people.

Recently, she said she wanted to let others know what she has gone through so they can understand — and be more empathetic toward — others who develop chronic conditions that limit what they can do. So we’ve decided to co-write an article from both of our perspectives.


First, let me tell you that I am eight years younger than Joyce. I don’t generally share my age because I don’t want readers to dismiss what I write because I am “old.” But the truth is that my body is also starting to break down and I can commiserate with her sense of loss.

I’ll begin my comments by giving you a brief snapshot of my life so you might understand who I am and how meeting Ivajoy was a pleasure for both of us.

I graduated from Wittenberg University in Ohio and came to California as a church social worker, which is where I met my husband, a graduate engineering student at the California Institute of Technology. I became a stay-at-home mom of four children and, when they were teens, began to work as an administrative assistant for a small environmental company and then for a direct marketing firm.

About this time, we began having trouble with our oldest son when he started using alcohol and marijuana. Neither my husband nor I knew how to handle our situation, so I went into therapy and also found my way to High Point Foundation in Pasadena, California. This was a small personal growth center based on the work of Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist, who created a model of human growth called “psychosynthesis.”

It was there that I met Ivajoy and our relationship began with our interest in this new esoteric field of growth. I recently wrote an article for the blog on this approach to understanding the psyche. For the article, I included quotations from my second book, Healing Relationships is an Inside Job, which describes how the theory of psychosynthesis can be applied to relationships. When I wrote the book three years ago, Ivajoy gave me great feedback, as she has done with all my books.

After completing my studies at the center, I entered Phillips Graduate Institute for a masters in marriage and family therapy and graduated in 1984. If you are interested in activities I’ve done after getting my license, you can check out my bio on Support4Change.


I was a twin with a sister two years older and have always lived in Southern California. We were all encouraged to do the best we could do at anything we did and to make a difference in the world.

For example, I learned to fly a plane, won archery contests,  and went to UCLA to be a teacher, and  taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for thirty-four years.

They saw me as a person who could help solve problems in the inner city and I was a school administrator at several schools. Whether working with problems created by gangs or integrating a large influx of students from Vietnam, I did my best to bring the latest teaching techniques to each campus I served.

For all my life I have made a project out of anything that interested me. For example, my parents had a house in Big Bear, a small community in the mountains near Los Angeles near a lake. When they died, I inherited the property. Unfortunately, soon after that, a large pine tree came crashing down during a storm. This gave me a new project: to fix the house and use it as a retreat center for clients and a place to entertain friends. As a co-owner of a boat on Big Bear Lake, I spent many happy days in the mountains, returning home to my house in Sherman Oaks.

Importance of Friends

Since I never found a person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life, I have been single. However, I’ve had lots of friends and greatly enjoyed doing things with them. I would frequently eat with them in restaurants, host birthday parties in my backyard, celebrate holidays, and travel. I was in the center of a circle of friends.

My family was also important to me. My twin, Joyce, lived in northern California and we would talk for hours on the phone. Not only did we share our history of being twins, but we had both been teachers and often talked about education. On special holidays I would also talk with my sister, Joan, who lived in England.

When I retired at the age of 55 as a school administrator, I went back to get a Ph.D., enjoying the security of an academic campus. I decided I would become a clinical psychologist and got a marriage and family therapy license. However, I didn’t feel I knew enough to be a good therapist and took a number of additional training programs.

One of these was the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Tarzana, where I learned hypnosis and later became a certified hypnotherapist.

Another of the training programs I entered was High Point Foundation in Pasadena. This was an active small community with a new approach to psychotherapy (see The Psychosynthesis Model for Getting Your Act Together). This was where I first met Arlene Harder. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

A Special Friend Who Shared My Interests

It was also at High Point that I met Olive, a psychologist, and we became very good friends. As with Arlene, we talked about clients, conferences we wanted to attend, current events, and metaphysics.

She was looking for an apartment and couldn’t find anything she could afford in Pasadena. However, it turns out that I had recently bought a condo in Leisure World, a retirement community about forty miles south of Sherman Oaks because I wanted a place where I could live when I retired. I was planning to rent it until then, so I suggested she could rent my condo and build a practice there. The retirement community was located in a wealthy area and we assumed that she could be as successful as she had been.

However, we discovered that people in retirement communities are willing to spend money on travel, but not on therapy, which was not as acceptable then as it is today. Networking in the broader area didn’t bring in enough business for her to pay the rent, so I decided to pay off the mortgage and let her stay there free.

I would talk with Arlene about it and she would encourage me to have Olive move out, to use “tough love.” But I just couldn’t kick her out. I am not a “tough love” kind of person. And where would she go? What would she do? By that time Olive was in her late 70’s and had no money with which she could start over someplace else. Besides, not only was I giving her a place to stay free of charge, I was also giving her money for incidentals, so my contribution to her welfare was fairly significant. I never resented it.

See the next installment of When Family and Friends Have a Chronic Illness next Wednesday.

 Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


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