Families and Chronic Illness

Module Sections:

Scope of the Issue

According to National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week (2007), nearly 1 in 2 Americans or 133 million Americans have a chronic condition. The description used to define chronic conditions included illnesses such as cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, to migraines or back pain.

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP, 2005) reports that “more than 90 million Americans live with chronic illnesses,” and 70% of all deaths in the United States are a result of chronic diseases. NCCDPHP (2005) defines a chronic illness as a disease having a prolonged course of illness and debilitating effects on an individual, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes (which are the most common health problems in America). The medical care costs of individuals diagnosed with a chronic illness account for “more than 75% of the nation’s $1.4 trillion medical care costs” (NCCDPHP, 2005).

In addition to the prevalence of chronic illness and disability, the literature illustrates that these will touch us all at some point in our lives. For example, both Rolland and Walsh have done extensive research in the area of chronic illness and are continually referenced throughout this module. Their contributions to chronic illness research have made them a continuous resource in guiding therapists and physicians. The following quote is an excerpt from Rolland & Walsh (2005). The quotation transitions you, the user, into the entirety of the module and introduces the present condition of chronic illness in our world today.

“Illness, disability, and death are universal experiences in families. Chronic and life-threatening conditions confront all of us with some of life’s greatest challenges. The real question is not if we will face these issues, but when in our lives, what kinds of condition, how serious, and for how long. With major advances in medical technology, people are living much longer with formerly fatal conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and now AIDS. Many children with chronic conditions that were once fatal or necessitated institutional care are now living into adulthood. The extension of later life has heightened the strain on sons and daughters who must contend with divided loyalties and complex navigation between elder caregiving, childrearing, and providing financially for the family. Thus, ever-growing numbers of families are living with chronic disorders over an increasingly long time and are struggling to cope with multiple challenges.” (pp. 285-286)

The above prevalence rates and quotation by Rolland & Walsh (2005) give us a glimpse into the issues related to chronic illness. The impact of managing chronic illness present challenges to individuals and their families thus permeating the very fabric of our society. Chronic illness has a way of rippling from smaller systems into larger systems (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The ways in which chronic illness affects families will be further discussed later in the module. First, let us address the question: What is chronic illness? This term will now be briefly introduced and will be discussed in more depth as you progress through the module.