When a loved one is diagnosed with heart disease, it is life altering for everyone involved. If someone you love—say a spouse or parent—has been diagnosed with heart disease, your committed support can increase longevity and go a long way toward a better quality of life for him or her.
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Here are some of the most important things you can do to help your loved one with heart disease.
Symptoms you should not ignore
First, learn as much as you can about your loved one’s disease so you know how you can help. Ask your loved one if you can come to the appointments, and write down the questions you want to ask. Read reliable resources. This will help you to understand what changes to expect in your loved one’s behavior and symptoms.
In brief, heart disease symptoms for your loved one may include fatigue with physical exertion, chest pain (angina), arrhythmia (irregular heart beats), shortness of breath, pain in the neck, abdomen or back, and swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, and veins in the neck. Your loved one’s doctor can tell you more.
If you know your loved one’s symptoms and how to manage them, you’ll know what can help in the moment, when they need to see the doctor, or if a more serious event is happening that demands immediate attention from a healthcare provider (i.e., calling 911).
In addition, be sure to talk to your loved one about Advanced Directives before a serious event so you and your family understand his or her wishes.
Plan your menu wisely
Helping your loved one stay on track with a heart-healthy diet means buying the right foods and making good menu choices when you are at home and dining out. This means eating fewer processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables along with lean cuts of meats and fish. You will want to avoid fried foods and read labels (and menus) carefully to avoid foods that are high in sodium, sugar and white carbohydrates (such as white flour, white rice). It can also make a big difference if you partake in the food selections with your loved one.
Cleveland Clinic dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, of Preventive Cardiology, offers this advice: “When you do eat out or are at a social event, share a meal or dessert, and add a salad. Avoid family style meals at home. Instead have your meals on a smaller plate and don’t go back for seconds—unless it’s veggies.”
To help your loved one with the proper diet choices, it’s a good idea to set up an appointment with a dietitian who can look at the specific heart disease options.
Pillboxes can help avoid medication mistakes
Depending on how sick your loved one is, it may be a good idea to manage his or her medication intake. You should encourage your loved one to be consistent in taking his or her meds and not running out of them. Pill boxes are a great way to help avoid mistakes and keep them organized. Always keep a detailed and up-to-date list of all medications being taken so you can inform all healthcare providers at any time.
Staying active is critical
Staying active is critical for cardiovascular health. Age, physical ability and the type of heart disease your loved one has will determine the appropriate exercise. His or her physician can help you decide the best activities, whether it be walking, a stationary bike or participating in sports at a gym or community center. Experts recommend at least 30 minute a day most days of the week.
“Set aside time each day for physical activity,” recommends Gordon Blackburn, PhD, of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “A walk, a bike ride, a group aerobics class or a game of doubles tennis can provide couples’ time and provide both partners with cardiovascular benefit.”
Mental health is just as critical
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of treating cardiovascular disease is a patient’s mental health. As a caregiver, you will want to take this into consideration, too. “Heart disease is a brush with a person’s mortality,” explains Leo Pozuelo, MD, a psychiatrist with Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “There is a subset of heart patients who have preexisting depression or an emotional issue that is exacerbated by the ordeal.”
In these cases, Dr. Pozuelo encourages caregivers to have their loved one visit a behavioral health clinic where patients can go to talk about the stress of heart disease and learn that they do have the tools and resilience to live a healthy life. “A behavioral health cardiology clinic can facilitate a patient’s recovery and hopefully improve their quality of life.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Finally, be sure to take time for yourself. You are there for your loved one, to listen and to offer support, but you also need a support person. Talk openly and honestly with a friend or family member and enlist their help if necessary. If this is not possible, join a support group. Understanding that you are not alone and that someone else is in a similar situation will help you feel nurtured and decrease your own stress. The most effective caregiver is well informed and prepared, and will to ask for help and support from all the resources that are available.