We associate strokes with old age, but it can happen much younger.
The chances of dying from a stroke have fallen by a third over the last decade, but more stroke survivors are middle-aged or younger, with many years ahead of them. Suddenly a blood clot blocks an artery, or a blood vessel breaks, and cells in a part of the brain lose their blood supply and begin to die. Afterwards, the survivor’s life may never be the same. Strokes can paralyze parts of the body and make it difficult to speak, or recall words.
As a parent, adult child, spouse, sibling, or dear friend, you may find yourself spending time every day helping your loved one get back on her feet. Your life becomes packed with chores. For starters, you may be helping your loved one keep up with a host of appointments with a large healthcare team.
The team may include an occupational therapist, who builds skills for daily living; a physiatrist to manage pain and a rehab plan; a physical therapist for exercise programs; a speech therapist to help regain speech; and a vocational therapist to consider work or volunteer opportunities. Your mother or sister will have exercises to do, and medications to take, and have trouble keeping track of it all, not to mention learning to eat with one hand.
As a caregiver, your first job is to stay sane and help keep your loved one’s spirits up. Consider using a downloadable journal prepared by the American Stroke Association (ASA) to offer inspiration and guidance and help you release emotional tension and collect your thoughts. Connecting to other stroke survivors and caregivers should go a long way to keep both of you from feeling singled-out for misfortune and bewildered: you’ll see that other people have navigated similar waters. Through the ASA, you might subscribe to the magazine, Stroke Connection, and find a support group for your loved one. Another resource is the National Stroke Association, which offers support groups for survivors and caregivers, online forums, and a downloadable Careliving Guide.
Stroke survivors are at greater risk for another stroke, so you’ll need to know the signs well. To diagnose a possible stroke, ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward? Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is her speech slurred or strange? Call 911 immediately and note the time the symptoms began: a clot-buster medication may reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke if the victim takes it within three hours of the first symptom.
Stroke survivors should quit smoking and be careful about the alcohol they consume, which can increase stroke risk. Using cocaine and amphetamines will also increase stroke risk because they narrow blood vessels and increase blood pressure. Exercising for a half hour five times a day will help — even at home.
Emotions can run high in any circumstances. It’s much worse when the person you loved has changed and become unpleasantly difficult. Brain damage to the frontal lobe can lead to a loss of empathy and impulse control — so a stroke victim might lash out. Or she may be clinically depressed, which can cause angry outbursts, says Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD, director of behavioral sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa., and author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers.” It’s possible to be psychologically abused by someone who can’t hurt you physically. If you become afraid for your own safety, or are often fretting or crying or carrying on angry conversations in your head, be sure to get help.
Sometimes you can fret just because you have too much to do and feel perpetually behind. The Stroke Association offers these simple time-management tips for caregivers:
- On the weekend, pre-make meals for some or all of the week that will taste fine defrosted.
- Take advantage of any ways to cut driving trips.
- At the beginning of the week, sort your loved one’s pills into an organizer, so you don’t have to help with finding each item each morning or night.
- When doing health research, set a time limit or stay focused on a particular question rather than letting hours go by at the computer.
- Create a list of tasks for anyone who will fill in as a caregiver: your “Care Plan.”
- Accept offers to help or suggest other actions that would help you more.
Caregiving may be the most difficult — and potentially rewarding — job of your life. Remember that there are many people in your shoes and organizations to help, among them:
- Lotsa Helping Hands
- The National Alliance for Caregiving
- The Caregiver Action Network
- The Family Caregiver Alliance
February 23, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN