How to Live Well With a Chronic Illness

Living well with a chronic condition

Written by Amedisys

Living with a chronic disease like diabetes, COPD or heart disease is full of challenges. You may not have energy to get things done, or even get through the day. Other people may not understand why you can’t do things you used to do. As you wake up and face a new day, you may wonder, “How am I going to do this on my own?”

You are not alone. Six in 10 Americans have at least one chronic illness, and many struggle to get through the day. Although you may need to make some lifestyle changes, “a chronic illness is not a death sentence,” says Susan Love, a nurse case manager at Amedisys Home Health in Harrogate, TN. “There are ways to manage chronic disease and still live well.” Here are a few tips from home health professionals who treat people with chronic illness every day.

1. Get emotional support.

Many people with chronic illness struggle with depression. Some chronic diseases have biological effects that cause depression, such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. It’s also common for people to feel depressed when a chronic illness makes it hard to do normal activities. If left untreated, depression can make some chronic illnesses worse. It also increases the risk of unhealthy coping behaviors like drinking alcohol or using drugs.

Feelings of anger, sadness, fear and grief are normal when you have a chronic disease. But if those feelings don’t go away or they get in the way of your daily life, ask for help. You can start with your doctor, friends, family or support groups for people with chronic illness. You may also benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor.

“If you’re feeling down, talk to someone,” says Love. “If you don’t have anyone you can talk to yet, write down how you’re feeling.” This simple act is a great way to reduce stress and cope with the changes in your life.

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2. Follow your doctor’s plan of care.

When you have a chronic illness, it’s more important than ever to follow through with doctor’s appointments and instructions. You have a chronic disease, but this doesn’t mean your body has turned on you. In fact, it’s working hard to keep you going, so treat it well by:

  • Taking your medications as directed
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs, which can change how your prescription medications work
  • Learning all you can about your condition so you can find ways to feel better
  • Quitting smoking
  • Telling your healthcare provider if you notice side effects or signs your condition is getting worse
  • Staying open to new treatment approaches until you find what works for you

3. Make small changes to your diet.

Do your healthcare providers regularly talk to you about your diet? You may be sick of hearing it, but they do this because even small dietary changes may help you live well longer. Research shows a healthy diet can slow the progression of chronic diseases and improve your quality of life.

Since the body burns fewer calories as we age, the foods we eat need to be packed with nutrients. “It’s not about ‘going on a diet,’” says Love. “It’s about gradual lifestyle change – one day at a time, one step at a time.” Many older adults struggle to eat nutritious food on a tight budget, but even low-cost foods can be made healthier with small changes.

4. Keep moving.

“The old adage ‘movement is medicine’ is still true,” says Carolyn Erskine, Amedisys’ vice president of nursing innovation. As we age, our bodies tend to lose muscle. We need regular physical activity to maintain flexibility, strength and balance. Research shows exercise can help prevent disability and reduce symptoms of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Even if you haven’t done exercise training in the past, research shows you can benefit from starting in your 60s and 70s. From swimming and gardening to walking, balance exercises and stretching, your doctor can help you find types of physical activity that are ideal for you.

5. Drink more water.

“My biggest tip for people living with chronic illness is ‘walk and water,’” says Tara White, a licensed practical nurse at Amedisys Home Health in Toccoa, GA. “Water helps medicines work properly. It helps move fluid retention and reduces blood sugar. You may have been doing things the same way your whole life, but this one change can make a big difference.” If you are on fluid restrictions, always follow your doctor’s orders.

6. Listen to your body.

Sometimes pushing outside your comfort zone is the way to make progress. For example, it can be healthy to move even if it’s difficult. But if you push too hard, you could end up with an injury or flareup. Your healthcare team can tell you when it may be helpful to push yourself and when you need to take it easy.

Erskine recommends keeping an activity log you can share with your healthcare provider. If you become short of breath putting groceries away, for example, write it down. “With the right help, there are ways to make daily tasks easier so you can stay independent at home.”

7. Focus on your goals.

If you’re struggling to find the energy or motivation to change your habits, White recommends focusing on your goals. Maybe you want to be able to get dressed by yourself, cook dinner for your family, go shopping or attend your grandchild’s wedding. “Set a goal you really care about,” she says. “Most of the time, there’s a way to achieve it if you’re willing to make some changes to get there.”

8. Manage your stress.

Due to natural changes in our minds and bodies, stress gets harder to manage as we age. Stress can affect the immune system and contribute to memory loss, fatigue and depression. This makes it harder to live with a chronic disease.

Meditation, relaxation techniques like deep breathing and guided imagery, and talking with a counselor can be helpful. Mindfulness, which involves focusing on the present moment, has also proven effective for managing stress. Helen Soderberg, a physical therapist at Amedisys Home Health in Oak Brook, IL recommends tai chi to her patients. “It’s a form of mindfulness that helps calm and focus people,” she says. “Those who are willing to try it say they’ve never felt so relaxed and energized at the same time.”

9. Make sleep a priority.

Your body needs sleep in order to heal. Although older adults need seven to nine hours of sleep, many get five hours or less per night. Lack of sleep can have many of the same effects as stress, including depression, memory issues and a greater risk of falling. If you have a hard time getting enough sleep despite keeping a regular bedtime routine and avoiding caffeine late in the day, talk to your doctor.

10. Learn new things.

By learning something new every day, you may be able to slow cognitive decline and boost your mood. “My mother once said, ‘Intelligent people never get bored,’ and I’ve never been bored since that day,” says Soderberg, who keeps her brain in shape by playing bridge, researching new topics and playing games online each day. You could also learn to knit, listen to podcasts, paint, take an online course, join a book club or volunteer.

11. Laugh.

“I take serious things very seriously, but when it’s not too serious I like to use humor with my patients,” says Soderberg. “There’s nothing like a belly laugh to break down barriers and stay youthful.” There’s research to back this up. Laughter may reduce stress and release “feel good” chemicals like endorphins. Spending time with grandchildren, watching a comedy or talking to a friend are a few healthy ways to invite silliness into your life.

12. Practice acceptance.

Health issues are part of life for everyone at some point. Once you accept the challenges you’re facing, you can learn how to manage them and take care of yourself. It’s common to feel angry or resentful when you see others doing things you cannot. Chronic illness is not a personal failure, yet many people blame themselves. But blaming yourself or others, or letting your illness define who you are, will only make you feel worse. Instead, treat yourself with the same compassion you would treat a friend or loved one.

13. Find extra support.

Having a chronic disease can feel isolating, but there are people who want to help. Friends, family and support groups can help you talk about how you’re feeling and find solutions. Having a loved one with a chronic illness is hard for them too so show your gratitude often and encourage them to develop their own support system.

You may need more help than friends and family can provide. Look at resources like Meals on Wheels, community centers, your local Area Agency on Aging and Facebook groups for people with your chronic disease. “Every community is different, but sometimes there are resources in surprising places,” says White. In her community, seniors can get transportation to and from doctor’s appointments through the local sheriff’s department if they don’t qualify for other assistance.

No one knows your body better than you. Ask questions of your healthcare providers and speak up about how you feel. If an illness, surgery or injury is making it difficult for you to leave home, ask your doctor if home health care is an option for you, or call a home health agency near you. Home health care gives patients and their caregivers the education and tools they need to manage chronic illness. “We are detectives, always on the lookout for what the patient needs, teaching them warning signs and coping strategies, and coordinating care with their doctor, so they can live well at home,” says Erskine.

There are lessons to learn in every life experience, including chronic illness. The challenges you’re facing can help you develop empathy, set boundaries, find meaning and appreciate the present moment. Embracing these lessons will make you a better friend to someone else in a similar situation. It will also help you live well with chronic illness.