How To Live Alone With A Chronic Illness
Updated: Jan 5
As a counsellor in Vancouver, I have witnessed many unique ways that individuals with a chronic illness cope and thrive when living alone. Coping effectively with a chronic illness can be challenging for anyone, even those living with supportive family members or friends.
For those with the lived experience of having a chronic illness diagnosis, living alone may cause additional worries and challenges. And, it should not limit you. Along with the physical and mental changes brought about by normal aging, chronic illnesses can make it harder to remain socially connected and safe in your own home. Despite these challenges, there are plenty of individuals living their best lives with a chronic illness.
Here's what they are doing...
Understanding their illness
When you first get diagnosed with a chronic illness, your world simply stops. What you knew to be a "normal" life, is now flipped 180 degrees. After the (initial?) wave of shock, denial, anger, sadness, shame, and more, you'll want to gently and slowly understanding your illness. This means reading, watching and listening reputable educational materials and resources about your illness. Once you start better understanding your illness you can regain a sense of power and strength over your life. This feeling of empowerment can help you start moving and engaging with the world again.
Coping with stress and emotions
There's nothing worse than debilitating levels of anxiety, stress and overwhelm. When it comes to overall wellbeing, mental and emotional health take centre stage, especially for those living with a chronic illness. Learning helpful and healthy ways of coping with anxiety and emotions will unburden you from the weight that grief, anger and shame have. Seeking professional help, from a Registered Clinical Counsellor (if specifically in British Columbia) or psychotherapist, will help you explore, connect and heal traumatic or challenging experiences in counselling. Counsellors also offer helpful tools, like Mindful Breathing, to help you find calm in moments of increased stress or emotional overwhelm.
An important social determinant of health is having a sense of belonging or community. Isolating yourself may lead to depression, and a worsening of your symptoms, so it is important to find ways to interact with others in a way that works best for you.¹
Due to the recent world pandemic (re. COVID-19) many organizations and support groups have turned to an online format to continue offering programs that help people living with a chronic condition stay connected. A supportive network of friends and family is usually viewed as ideal, but for many people, and for a variety of reasons, this is not always available.¹ Consider joining new and existing online communities for other people living with the same or similar chronic illnesses. Staying connected with others can help improve your mood and feel better knowing that others are also going through similar life situations.
Get moving - I'm sure I'm not the first nor the last to tell you this. Physical activity has been found vital for overall health. Not only does being physically active strengthen your body, but it also keeps your mind engaged and mood up. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults (18-64 years and 65 years and older) do at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week, as well as muscle and bone strengthening activities at least twice per week. While you may not follow these recommendations to a T, something is better than nothing. So get moving!
Setting up a routine
Being organized is not everyone's strong suit, but when it comes to living with a chronic illness it can be that much more important for your overall wellbeing. Setting up a daily and weekly routine helps keep you on track and moving along your goals. It also creates a sense of accountability, which can be especially helpful for those living by themselves. Setting up and doing your morning and/or evening routines can be rewarding and empowering. Knowing that the routine is there to make you feel better can be motivating when the going gets tough. Two books that can convince you of the power of routines are: The Power of Habits and The Checklist Manifesto.
Cultivating their health team
I understand that this is easier said than done, however having a health team that you know is reliable and supportive can be a life changer. When cultivating your health team, it is important to feel heard and seen by your healthcare professionals. It is also important to feel like these professionals are a good fit for you. So it is normal to shop around, so to speak, to find the right fit. Understandably so, not all health disciplines have infinite professionals to pick from. If you're having difficulties being heard or seen by your healthcare professional, it can be helpful to use communication tools, such as the P.A.C.E. model, to better engage with them, and to get your needs met.
Staying on top of their medications
If your chronic illness requires you to start taking medication or are you at the point in your disease progression where medication will help alleviate or reduce symptoms, staying on top of them is important. There are many different ways that you can keep track of your medication. For example, writing it down or having someone write down the medication names and dosages is a good starting point. Having a medication journal is a nice reference for when you go traveling, when you go to appointments, or when you notice symptoms changes or side effects.
A great resource to access about your medication needs and questions is your local Pharmacist. They are drug experts. Pharmacists can inform you about the medication(s) you're taking, recommend generic medication(s) to cut costs, or help you organize and dispense them in a way that works for you. You are also able to consult with a Pharmacist about the medication(s) that may be negatively interacting or interfering with each other. Note that Pharmacists should not replace consultation with your medical professionals, such as your General Practitioner, Family Doctor or Specialist.
Safeguarding their homes
People who live alone with a chronic illness make sure that their living space is safeguarded. Making your home a safer place can help you feel more comfortable and can decrease some concerns that you, and those who care about you, may have.¹ Parkinson society British Columbia has a wonderful in-home safety checklist that you can use to safeguard your own home.
Asking for (and accepting!) support
This is probably the hardest action to do, AND it will likely yield you tremendous relief. So while your ego might want to rebel for a bit (or a long time), detach from negative beliefs about being 'weak', 'not good enough' or 'a burden' will make life so much easier and content.
When asked to help, many people are happy to support when they understand your needs. It is thus important to make your requests specific (e.g. Could we have coffee together more than once a month?), practical (e.g., Could you drive me to an appointment?), and provide as much notice as possible (e.g. My appointment is at the end of next week. Can you drive me there?).¹ You may be pleasantly surprised by people's responses.