Families and Chronic Illness

Module Sections:

Establishing a Common Ground

What is a Chronic Illness?

A chronic illness is “a long-term or permanent illness that interferes with a person’s ordinary physical, psychological, or social functioning” (Gordon, 2002).

Consider the following definitions of each term:

The term illness refers to the subjective experience of the patient. It is the

  • subjective experience of being sick
  • the experience of symptoms
  • suffering
  • help seeking
  • side effects of treatment
  • social stigma
  • explanations of causes
  • diagnosis
  • prognosis
  • personal consequences in family life and occupation (Kleinman, 1998a).

In contrast, disease refers to the “diagnosis of the doctor or folk healer. It is a clinician’s definitions of the patient’s problem, always taken from the paradigm of the disease in which the clinician was trained.” (Castillo, 1997)

Chronic describes “symptoms that last indefinitely and that have a cause that may or may not be identifiable” (Falvo, 2005). A chronic condition requires individuals to reorganize their entire life to accommodate the outcomes of the condition (Falvo, 2005).

Throughout this module, users from a variety of disciplines will be assessing and applying the material presented. The HBFT team recognizes each user’s unique, individual experiences from his or her background. The team also acknowledges each user’s experiences with chronic illnesses within the family. However, in this module, we are going to address this particular topic through a systemic lens. This means that we will look at the family unit as a whole, while also recognizing each family member’s individual role within the larger family system. When a change occurs to one family member this has a ripple effect to other members of the family. This module will observe how a chronic illness affects the family unit and the interaction of individual members within that family unit. The models and theories presented and applied in this module provide a framework for working directly with family systems affected by chronic illness and other disabilities.