A diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) impacts more than just the person who receives it. Even if you have no personal experience living with a chronic illness, if your loved one has been diagnosed with RA you may have to make adjustments in your life and learn how to support them. My husband and I have been living with my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis for more than eight years, and my RA has certainly had an impact on both of our lives – as well as the lives of our children. Since I don’t have personal experience supporting a loved one, my husband has helped me brainstorm these ideas and resources for when your loved one has RA.
Work on honest communication.
Communication is a necessary component of any strong relationship, and it becomes even more important when your loved one lives with RA. Your loved one is facing a lot of challenges, both physical and emotional, and they need to be able to explain what they are going through and receive support and understanding from you. However, it’s also true that their RA diagnosis may have an impact on your life, and your feelings are no less valid. This makes it really important to find a way to discuss these feelings openly and honestly so that you can figure out how to move forward together.
Consider RA a shared problem.
One way to make it easier to communicate about the practical and emotional impacts of RA is to always try to consider the impacts of RA as a problem that you share, rather than a problem belonging only to your loved one. If you think of RA only as a problem belonging to your loved one, it is likely to lead to feelings of guilt and resentment on both sides. But if you can think of the challenges of RA as issues that you face as a team, you can turn a negative situation into an opportunity to make your relationship even stronger.
Find ways to help.
RA places limitations on a person’s body and energy, so sometimes there are practical things that you can do to help your loved one on a day-to-day basis. For example, if I’m worn out and in pain from spending the day taking care of our kids, my husband will run me a hot Epsom salt bath and put the boys to bed on his own. I also rely on him to open jars, take out the trash, and carry baskets of laundry up and down the stairs. Even if these tasks seem small and insignificant to you, they may be extremely useful for your loved one with RA. My husband says his best advice for caregivers is to try not to keep score. Instead, we try to focus on the good things each of us brings to the table.
It’s also important to recognize that sometimes the very best thing you can do to help is to recognize that you may not be able to “fix” the problem. Although your loved one likely appreciates the practical help you provide, sometimes with RA there simply isn’t a quick or easy fix. In those cases, what your loved one really needs is someone to listen and be compassionate.
Make sure you have support too.
Supporting someone who is living with RA can often require a great deal of patience and understanding. It can be a difficult situation for a relationship because your loved one with RA may not always be capable of reciprocating and providing you with the support you need. For that reason, it is important to make sure you have your own sources of support – friends or family that you can share your feelings with, or perhaps a counselor or therapist that you can talk to.
Another useful resource is the Well Spouse Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and addresses the needs of individuals who are caring for a chronically ill or disabled partner. The Well Spouse Association offers peer-to-peer support to help you deal with the special challenges and unique issues “well” spouses face every day. Just as your loved one with RA benefits from connecting to other people living with RA, you may benefit from getting support from people who understand what it is like when your loved one has RA.