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How to Stay Strong In College While Caring for Your Sick Parent

How to Stay Strong In College While Caring for Your Sick Parent
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Amanda Suazo profile
Amanda Suazo March 21, 2014

One of the hardest things that can happen to a college student is to witness her parent fight a disease. Equipping yourself with knowledge and the right support can help get you through it.

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Your parents spend so many years worrying about you and your health, but now mom or dad is sick—really sick.

You didn’t expect this. What’s worse, you’re feeling conflicted. While she or he is far away battling her or his condition, you’re far away in school. How can you juggle school while trying to be there for your unfortunately ill parent—or someone else who’s very special and significant to you?

Whether or not the situation is hopeful or dire, you can still be there for your awesome parent and tend to your studies.

Editor’s note: We use “parents," “mom," and “dad" throughout this piece to describe the person in your life who is sick, but this could apply to other close friends and family members, too.

# # Provide Remote Care for Mom or Dad

Whether you commute to school, live close, or live far from mom or dad, you can still take a proactive approach to do the best you can to show your parent you love him/her through this:

  • Talk to your parent to figure out where she needs the most help, such as with grocery shopping, doing chores, running errands, etc.
  • Find people in his community who can help her with those tasks. Perhaps a local church, a close relative, or family friend who can help.
  • When possible, go with your mom to her doctor’s appointments. Pay attention to the kinds of medications she has to take. Understand the purpose of those meds, and be sure that she’s taking them regularly.
  • Stay in touch for your own piece of mind and provide emotional support. Your parent is still a person who is interested in what's going on in your life.

# # Get Acquainted With Your School’s Policy

While universities offer absence policies for bereavement, your campus may also excuse students with ill parents. If your school does not offer a specific rule on these absences, try talking to the dean of students for special accommodations.

If you believe your parent’s illness will require a large investment of your time, notify professors about your situation as soon as possible. Rather than simply asking for help, clarify the other steps you will take to manage your time and prioritize the coursework. Professors want to support your progress, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them. If you do end up with a professor who isn’t accommodating, you may need to withdraw from her class—which may offer you a sigh of relief.

# # There Are Solutions If This Could Hurt You Financially

Some organizations offer scholarships for students who have a parent suffering from a specific ailment. The Merfeld Family Foundation Scholarship Fund supports children of parents with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults offers scholarships to students with family members battling cancer. Start researching alternative forms of aid in time for the next semester or school year.

# # Get Involved With Organizations Created for People Like You

The National Students of AMF Support Network provides support for students with ill or deceased parents. They have 64 chapters in the U.S. You can even start a new chapter on your campus. These organizations can connect you with others who better understand your situation and raise awareness for students in your position.

If you feel uncomfortable confiding in friends or family about your parent’s illness, consult your school’s health center for counseling options or referrals. A professional can help you address and redirect the stress you feel from caring for your parent while juggling school work.

# # Lastly, Take Care of Yourself

You have every right to feel angry, sad, or anxious. It’s okay to take care of yourself while mom or dad confronts her/his illness. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat well and exercise to help manage stress and ease your mind
  • Spend some downtime volunteering, if time permits
  • Take up a new hobby to divert your focus

You may feel tempted to drop out of school, but only consider it as a last resort. David Fajgenbaum, who founded AMF, remained in college throughout his mother’s battle with a brain tumor. David began to associate his education with his mother and dedicated his studies to her after she passed away. You can use your time at school to honor your parent if he suffers health issues, and use it to become a catalyst for productive and meaningful work.

Mom’s or dad’s illness can also give you the chance to speak up about funding disease research like Seth Rogen recently did for his mother-in-law who suffers from Alzheimer’s. You can also take the opportunity to develop more resources for students in your situation like Faigenbaum did when establishing AMF. Becoming an advocate can empower both you and other students who feel the isolation of having an ill parent in college.


McLeod, B. W. (2014, March 11). Long-distance caregiving. Retrieved from HealthDay

Merfeld Family Foundation Scholarship Fund. (n.d.). Retrieved from Ventura County Community Foundation

Scholarships. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults

Find a chapter. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Students of AMF Support Network

Bennett, K. D. (2012, September 3). Surviving college after the loss of a parent. Retrieved from CNN

Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself. (2012, May 23). Retrieved from Mayoclinic

Cheney-Rice, Z. (2014, February 27). Watch Seth Rogen's epic congressional testimony — to a room with few senators listening. Retrieved from PolicyMic

Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski


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