Families working, hoping and healing together

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Be brave

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“It’s not uncommon for family dynamics to change when one member is ill or facing a serious health challenge,” says Dr. Michael Gordon. His experience in geriatric medicine and palliative care have taught him a lot about how families can work together to bring support, courage and hope when it’s needed most. Here, he shares his knowledge and experience with you.

“When a loved one is ill, the focus should be primarily on the ill person,” says Dr. Michael Gordon, Medical Program Director for Palliative Care at Toronto’s Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System and co-author of Parenting Your Parents. “When family members work together and act as a united force, the person who is ill and the family will benefit.”

If your family is facing a health crisis, try these tips from Dr. Gordon to make things better for everyone involved — especially your ill family member.

  • Be open. Speak together as a family and come up with a realistic and sound way to bring supportive care. “In a non-judgemental way, talk about how you can work together to extend care, love and support,” advises Dr. Gordon. “Let all members participate in ways they want and as often as they want.”
  • Be honest — with each other and the family member who is ill. Don’t fall victim to what Dr. Gordon calls “the conspiracy of silence.” If a seriously ill person wants to know about their condition, be honest with them. “Often that person is more afraid of the unknown than a specific condition,” he says. “Truth should not necessarily take away hope. As a matter of fact, I often see relief in a ill person’s when they know the name of their condition because at least they know what they’re up against.”
  • Allow them to enjoy simple pleasures. It can be easy to stop someone you care about from doing what they want to do when they’re seriously ill. With adults, that simply shuts them out of the life they want to lead. “When an adult is seriously ill, family members may become over-protective to the point that the ill person has no say in very important aspects of their own life,” explains Dr. Gordon. “But we must all remember to allow the little personal pleasures that give life meaning. When in doubt, consult with their doctor or primary healthcare provider.”
  • Listen, no matter how hard it may be. It may be hard to listen to someone you care about express fear, depression or anger over their condition — especially if it’s someone who you’ve always seen as strong and independent. But it’s an important thing to do. “Don’t change the subject or brush off an ill person’s comments about their own uncertainty concerning their health,” he continues. “Your sympathetic and compassionate ear may help ease fears and stress.”
  • Work with healthcare professionals. If necessary, assign one or two family members as primary contacts. In some cases, family members will be a doctor’s only source of vital information and often act as an extension of their healthcare team.
  • Ensure your loved one is part of this world. “People who are seriously ill, especially those outside their homes, can feel isolated,” he says. “Family members should keep them informed and speak to them about family gatherings, activities and achievements. While they may not be part of the activity, they’ll still feel part of a family and a member of their personal and external world.”
  • Provide reassurance. “Even if you are uncertain yourself of what’s to come, let the person who is ill know that the family is there to support them emotionally and physically,” advises Dr. Gordon. “Let them know you’re there for them and that their healthcare team is doing everything possible to make them comfortable.”
  • Know that physical limitations are only physical. A person’s decline physically can trigger changes in how you treat them emotionally and intellectually. Do not fall into this trap. “Just because a person is confined to a bed that doesn’t mean they’re less than who they are. They still deserve all the respect and attention they received before falling ill,” he says.


  • Interview, Dr. Michael Gordon
  • Bart J. Mindszenthy and Dr. Michael Gordon, Parenting Your Parents, Website

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