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Helping Loved Ones Make Tough Health Changes

Whether your loved one refuses to confront a chronic disease or an addiction, know how you can help and where your limits lie.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Whether it's the smoker with the incessant cough or the diabetic person who ends every dinner with a sugary dessert, we all know someone who blatantly ignores pressing health concerns.

It's particularly painful to witness a loved one refuse to make necessary, maybe even lifesaving, behavior changes. Offering support can be tricky, especially when the would-be recipient seems unwilling to accept it. But it's worth it, say the experts -- when you go about it the right way. Here's what they suggest.

Understand the Resistance

Before you can attempt to break down your loved one's resistance to behavior change, you need to learn what's causing it. Generally, that's not something that happens overnight. "It takes time to understand why the person is so resistant," says John Burton, MD, a Johns Hopkins geriatrician. While people's reasons for resisting healthy lifestyle changes vary, experts point to a few common causes.

"People who have just been diagnosed with a chronic disease that requires lifestyle changes may still be reeling from the shock of the diagnosis," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise. "Some people simply feel it's unfair that they have an illness or chronic condition." In turn, they're likely to resist lifestyle changes required to manage the condition. This refusal to take action is a telltale sign that the person has not yet accepted the diagnosis.

Sometimes, fear prevents people from taking action. For instance, sedentary patients who are given a "prescription" to lose weight may have unstated concerns about their ability to safely execute the recommendations. These folks may need support beyond what a loved one can offer. To enhance their comfort level, they may want to consult a professional who has experience working with patients whose health needs are similar to their own, Bryant suggests. For example, someone who is newly diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and told to lose weight may benefit from the expertise of an exercise physiologist and/or nutritionist who specializes in working with other heart disease patients.

Get Informed

Even if your loved one isn't ready to tackle much-needed behavior changes, you can do more than wait helplessly.

The first thing you should do? "Get informed," urges Malinda Peeples, MS, RN, CDE. "If your spouse is diagnosed with a chronic disease, you're both going to be living with it," says Peeples, president of the American Association of American Diabetes Educators. Knowing what, when, and how changes need to happen will come in handy in the event that your loved one chooses to adopt them.

If your loved one suffers from an addiction, learning about the impact your relationship has had on its progression -- possibly with the assistance of a certified counselor -- can be just as enlightening as understanding the addiction itself. "It can be growth-promoting for a spouse or significant other to learn about aspects of the relationship that potentially promoted the addiction," says James Garbutt, MD, a psychology professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There's no doubt that such revelations can be painful for both parties. But by exposing the vulnerable aspects of a relationship, you also make them available for repair.

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