Caring for a Heart Patient

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
February 29, 2016

Living healthier can help you both. 

A heart attack can be a big wake-up call. Doctors ask their heart patients to lose weight and change their diet, cut out long work hours, or make time to meditate. They’ll need to keep track of medications and symptoms — or find a helper who will watch out for them. As a spouse, adult child, sibling, or concerned friend, you can help simply by being a good listener — or you may take on many chores. If you live together, you can join your loved one and live healthier, too.  

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Primary caregivers: recognize that you’ll need help and organize your new life together, giving yourself full credit for all you do. Some people slip backwards reluctantly into task after task. Others fly early on into a frenzy of activity that leads to burn out. Instead, see yourself as taking on a long-term role and set the pace.
It’s easy to despair — your life may be changing dramatically in ways you didn’t choose. Caregivers say things like:

  • “I can't go on vacation. I don't have a life other than caregiving."
  • "My world has been turned upside down."
  • "I find I neglect my own family to care for my father."
  • "My husband used to care for me; now I have to care for him. I miss the protection and feeling I used to have."
  • "It's constantly on my mind, no matter what I'm doing."
  • "Sometimes I drive back and forth as many as six times a day plus take my lunchtime to care for him. But I must protect my job."
  • "I was a stay-at-home mom but I had to return to full-time work as well as take on all the responsibilities my husband can no longer handle. Mother-in-law had to move in to help with child care and caregiving while I work. It's a big strain to have someone else living in our home."
  • "I feel as though I've lost my best friend."

The best way to avoid despair is to take care of yourself: keep track of your own needs and meet them. The American Heart Association suggests that you take a 10- or 15-minute walk a couple of times a day, perhaps building some fitness activities into chores. Carry your own groceries and park the car far from the entrance. Climb stairs instead of the escalator at a mall.

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If you spend hours with your loved one providing direct care, schedule timeouts. If you insist on your time-outs and keep them up, your loved one will learn not to interrupt you. Choose moments when your husband or mother likes to nap or watch TV. If you find yourself getting burned out, ask yourself if you need someone to talk to daily other than the person you’re caring for, a regular day off, counselling, time with your pets, outings with friends, time in the sun in greenery, or more exercise. You may need information or practical help, or referrals.

Tracking progress will encourage both of you. Heart patients need to weigh themselves daily — ideally each morning before breakfast and after urinating, undressed or in the same clothes, without shoes, on the same scale, and in the same spot. If you live together, you might weigh yourself, too. If you both need to lose weight, set a short-term goal with a date and a longer one. Plan rewards for reaching each goal and write them down. For example, you might reward yourself or your loved one for losing a pound that week by going to a movie. When your loved one loses 20 pounds, you might visit friends out of town.

Tracking what you eat will help. You might use a calorie-counting app or adopt a Weight Watcher’s point system. Think about the events that trigger you or your loved one to overeat or skip exercise — and then plan ways to avoid or cope with them. Post a list of milestones on your refrigerator or bathroom wall: the first time your loved one walked a mile without stopping, or reduced his blood pressure level 10 points.

The American Heart Association provides a checklist you might post in the bathroom to track symptoms. Note if your loved one experiences shortness of breath that isn’t related to exertion or during the night, swelling in the legs or ankles or abdomen, abdominal pain, a hacking cough, loss of appetite, fatigue, or lingering sadness.

Especially if you or your loved one are becoming down-hearted, connect to people who can give you the benefit of their experience or provide information. Try the online support forums at the American Heart Association, and check the resources and information available from the Family Caregiver Alliance, National Alliance for Caregiving, National Family Caregivers Association, and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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February 29, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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