Ask Mary Jo: Supporting parent with chronic illness & relationship deal breakers

Hi Mary Jo,

How do you emotionally support your parent when they’re struggling with a chronic illness?



Caring for your parent can be an incredible opportunity to become closer to them and help them feel more supported as they deal with their illness. However, it can also be emotionally and physically draining if you try to be perfect and do it all. These five suggestions will help your parent feel more supported while helping you stay healthy.

  1. Reach out to others and be upfront about your new role as a caretaker. It’s not healthy for you to try and go it alone. When everyone in your family understands you’re taking care of grandma or grandpa, they can pitch in more at home. When friends are aware of your new role, many times they will offer much needed support, minimizing feelings of disconnection and stress.
  2. Get educated. Go to as many doctor appointments with your parent as possible. Talk to the doctor, ask for literature, explain your parent’s illness, and understand their prognosis. Be their advocate and another pair of ears during medical visits. Working as your parents support team helps them feel less alone with what’s happening and you less stressed about what is going on.
  3. Don’t deny that things have changed in your life and your parent’s. Allow yourself and your parent time to grieve. When parents become chronically ill, their child has to grieve the loss of their parent’s health and personal freedom since they’ve become a caretaker. Parents have to grieve the loss of health and autonomy. Feeling ashamed to cry or like they have to stay strong for each other leads to anger and resentment. Both you and your parent will adjust to your new roles easier if you allow yourself to feel all feelings without judgment.
  4. Allow other caregivers step in. Don’t attempt to be a “super caregiver.” You need to take time off without feeling guilty. You can’t be with a loved one 24/7. Enlist the help of other siblings and volunteer services. Visiting Angels, Cleaning for a Reason, and Meals on Wheels are helpful in providing additional social support and services for your parents. Family Caregiver Alliance ( and Empowering Caregivers ( provide online encouragement for caregivers of chronically ill parents.
  5. Allow your parent as much autonomy as possible while being aware of their physical limitations. It’s tough to know exactly what your parents may need as their health declines. Helping them by running errands or setting up grocery delivery is something that will alleviate some of their worries. Spending time with them, listening to their experiences, holding their hand, or watching their favorite TV show with them are actions that mean the most.


Hi Mary Jo,

I’m a really committed guy. I often find myself hanging onto relationships when I probably shouldn’t. What are 3 deal breakers when it’s time to let go?



There are obvious red flags, such as anger, controlling behavior, jealousy, and violence, but many times these are masked until you’re deeply invested in the relationship. The more subtle versions of these will appear within the first month of a relationship. I suggest you pay attention to the following:

  1. If your date has a sense of “entitlement.” This shows up when they need their own way with most things.
  2. If they use sarcasm 90% of the time. Sarcasm is anger and hostility often masked with humor. It represents a superiority of thinking. When you think you’re better than everyone else, you need a therapist not a relationship.
  3. If they carry unresolved anger about their family, an ex, a boss, or anyone else. Unresolved anger means the person isn’t able to express or manage their anger. Usually their anger controls them, instead of them controlling their anger.
  4. If you frequently catch them in a lie. When someone lies about small things, they’ll lie about bigger things like their feelings for you or their living situation.

It’s important to trust your gut. Instincts tell us when people are manipulative or untrustworthy. The problem is, we ignore what our gut tells us and give the person the benefit of the doubt. People show you who they are the first couple of times you meet them. When their actions include unhealthy behaviors, respect yourself enough to break it off.