‘Building Your Village’ During Serious Illness

Having a seriously ill person in the family affects every aspect of life. You might be dealing with treatments and doctor’s appointments, caring for someone at home, taking care of tamariki / children or supporting your family financially – or all of the above.

When you have a seriously ill person in the family It’s normal to feel isolated and overwhelmed – like no one understands, and the world is falling down around you.

Support from extended family can be a lifesaver during tough times like these. But many kiwi whānau don’t have family members they can rely on. In this article, we’ll look why it’s important to get support when someone you love is seriously ill, and how to find that support.  

Why is family or community support so important?

There is plenty of research out there showing that spending time with family improves the mental and physical health of a seriously ill person, and cuts down on the length of time they stay in hospital (Lewis et al., 2016). There’s no doubt that being around the people you love is a positive thing when you’re seriously ill.

But what about the immediate whānau of that person? We often overlook the stress and responsibility that serious illness places on a whānau, especially if the illness continues for a long time. Everyone will be affected. For tamariki, it can mean changes to routine, lack of stability, and being around lots of tough emotions. For adults, it can mean financial stress, complicated logistics and medical care, as well as being the main support person for their tamariki. And of course, dealing with plenty of tough emotions themselves.

To help a person who’s seriously ill, start by helping their family. Support can mean so many different things:

  • cooking meals for them
  • helping with childcare
  • raising money to cover essential costs
  • offering respite care for the person who’s ill if they’re at home, or visiting them in hospital
  • making a roster for household chores
  • being a kind, patient listener or shoulder to cry on

If you aren’t geographically close, you can still offer support – you may just need to be a bit more creative. There are lots of food delivery services available, which can be a great way to help out with meals remotely. You can keep in contact via video calls or offer support with children (e.g. sending a quiet activity like a colouring book to a preschooler, or organising to play a game online with a teenager) without physically being there.

Having a good support system in place will help a whānau feel cared for and less alone. It will help prevent burnout for caregivers, and it will give everyone space to process what’s happening. Often this kind of support can come from extended whānau. But these days, as people spread out across the country and abroad, there are more and more of us without a network of family members nearby to provide much-needed help.

Building Your Village

If your whānau is affected by serious illness and you don’t have extended family around you, it can be hard to ask for help from your community. Often there is more help out there than we realise, but we need to go looking for it.  

Think of it as building a village around you and your whānau. You’re drawing together people from the community who can support you in different ways – this could be neighbours, friends, work colleagues, not-for-profit organisations, support groups, or contacts from your child’s ECE or school. If you have the resources, don’t forget there are also plenty of paid options for adding to your village – cleaners, dog-walkers, gardeners, babysitters, or getting a supermarket delivery pass... These kinds of options can help to ease the different pressures you’ll be facing.  

Everyone in your village will have different things they can do and help with. It’s about combining these things to create a support system that works for your whānau. It might feel like a big task, one that you don’t have the energy or time for. Just take it one step at a time. Be gentle with yourself – building a village doesn’t happen overnight.

Here are some ideas on steps you can take:  

  • Talk to the people in your neighborhood who you think might be able to help. If you want to, give them information about the illness in your whānau – what’s happening now, what you expect to happen next, and what you need help with. Sometimes part of our village is people we can relax with and have a break from the challenges we’re facing. So remember that help can simply be someone to watch the rugby with, if that’s what you need at the time.

  • Talk to your hōhipere / hospital social worker. Explain that you need help and find out what they can offer.

  • Many illnesses have charities or organisations dedicated to supporting patients and their families. Start by taking a look at our list of support organisations

If you don’t find an organisation that’s relevant to you here, talk to your medical team or search online.

  • Practice accepting help. Accept the meal your neighbour is offering to drop off. The next time a friend asks if you need anything done around the house, ask them for a hand with the vacuuming or the laundry. You’ll be surprised how much easier accepting support becomes when you realise people are genuinely happy to have helped.

  • Remember that you’re not alone – no matter which illness is affecting your family, there are others who have walked this road before you. Talking to people who understand what it’s like is really helpful. Social Media or in-person support groups can be a good place to connect and get support.

  • Talk to a professional. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when you’re dealing with serious illness. You don’t have to do it alone. For the adults and tamariki in your whānau, therapy can be a good source of support. At Kenzie’s Gift, we offer resource kits and one-to-one therapy for kiwis affected by serious illness. To find out more Contact us

Lewis, Z. H., Hay, C. C., Graham, J. E., Lin, Y. L., Karmarkar, A. M., & Ottenbacher, K. J. (2016). Social Support and Actual Versus Expected Length of Stay in Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 97(12), 2068–2075. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2016.06.005