Chronic Illness: Help for Caregivers
Helping or caring for a loved one with a long-term (chronic) condition, such as COPD or heart failure, can feel like a lot to take on.
Sometimes it can be hard for people to accept help. Or they may choose not to accept help. So you may have to adjust the way you think, ask, listen, and respond. These tips might help.
- Do your best to see things from your loved one's point of view.
- Ask questions like "What do you need help with?" and "How do you like to do this?"
- Offer new ideas gently.
For example, ask "Would you like me to do your breathing exercises with you?" instead of "You need to do your breathing exercises."
- Learn from your loved one what it means to have the best quality of life possible.
Ask questions like:
- "What do you consider a good day? What can we do to help you have more of them?"
- "What are you looking forward to doing in the next few months? How can we keep your health on track with those plans?"
- "What part of your care is hardest for you right now? How can you and I make that easier on you? Is there something your doctor can help with?"
Helping your loved one decide to quit smoking
You can gently encourage someone who uses tobacco to quit. Think of your comments as only one event that may move that person toward quitting.
- Start any discussion of quitting in a gentle way. Ask if it's okay to talk about it. If it is, ask what they think about quitting.
- Let the person know why you want them to quit. Give reasons that are as important to them as they are to you. For example: "I want you to be with us for a long time." Don't try to make them feel guilty.
- Ask if there are ways that you can help if they decide to quit.
- Make this talk short. Ask if you can check with them later to see what they're thinking.
Helping your loved one conserve energy
Cooking dinner, putting away laundry, or even just walking across the living room can be exhausting for a person who has COPD, heart failure, or another long-term (chronic) condition.
When helping your loved one, be patient. And let your loved one do as much on his or her own as possible.
To help your loved one get tasks done more easily and with as little effort as possible, encourage your loved one to:
- Make a list of what chores to get done every day.
Group the tasks by location. This way your loved one does all the chores in one part of the house at around the same time.
- Take rest breaks often.
- Sit down whenever possible while doing household tasks.
Encourage your loved one to sit down when bathing, getting dressed, brushing his or her teeth, shaving, or putting on makeup.
Helping your loved one get enough to eat and not lose weight
COPD, heart failure, and other long-term (chronic) conditions can make it hard to eat enough and stay at a healthy weight. Losing weight means losing muscle mass. This includes the muscles that help with breathing. It can make it harder for your loved one to breathe.
Here are some ways to help your loved one stay at a healthy weight.
- Help your loved one boost their appetite.
Your loved one may have a low appetite or need some encouragement to eat regularly. To help encourage your loved one to eat:
- Encourage your loved one to eat whenever they are hungry. Some people may find that they are able to eat a bigger meal in the morning. Other people may be hungrier later in the afternoon or evening.
- Offer food more often, including snacks throughout the day.
- Prepare a variety of foods that are easier to chew. Some examples of soft foods are mashed potatoes, shredded meats, soft fruit like bananas or applesauce.
- Limit foods that cause gas or indigestion. These may include vegetables such as beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, or onions.
- Help your loved one gain weight, if needed.
You can help your loved one add calories and protein to meals or snacks. Try these tips.
- Use whole-fat dairy products, like whole milk, half-and-half, and whole-milk yogurt.
- Add cheese, olive oil, butter, or mayonnaise to sandwiches, casseroles, soups, vegetables, potatoes, or pasta.
- Serve high-calorie snacks, such as crackers topped with peanut butter, honey, or cream cheese.
- Serve a liquid meal replacement or supplement between meals.
If your loved one has other diet limitations, talk with your loved one's doctor or a registered dietitian before you make any changes to what they eat.
- Help your loved one breathe easier while eating.
Your loved one may have a hard time breathing while eating. But there are things they can do to make it easier. Encourage your loved one to:
- Clear the airways about an hour before eating, and use any medicines that make breathing easier.
- Use oxygen (if needed) while eating.
- Drink the beverage at the end of the meal. Drinking before or during the meal can make your loved one fill up too quickly.
- Try eating smaller, frequent meals each day to prevent getting too full. A full stomach can push on the muscle that helps you breathe (your diaphragm) and make it harder to breathe.
Taking care of yourself when you're a caregiver
Taking care of yourself is your most important step as a caregiver. Caregiving can be stressful, even in the best of situations. Here are some important things you need to find time to do—just for yourself.
- Take a class on caregiving.
You will meet other caregivers and learn new ways to deal with challenging situations. To find classes in your area, contact the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org).
- Get some exercise.
You may feel better and sleep better if you exercise. Experts say to aim for at least 2½ hours of moderate activity a week.footnote 1
- Eat healthy meals and snacks.
When you are busy giving care, it may seem easier to eat fast food than to prepare healthy meals. But healthy meals are easy to prepare, and healthy eating will give you more energy to carry you through each day.
- Get enough sleep.
If you aren't getting enough sleep at night, take a nap during the day. Plan to get at least one full night's rest each week.
- Make time for an activity you enjoy.
For example, make time to read, listen to music, paint, do crafts, or play an instrument—even if you can only do it for a few minutes a day. If you like to go to church activities or take classes, ask a friend or family member to stay with your loved one for an hour or two once or twice a week so you can do those things.
- Get regular medical checkups.
This includes dental checkups. Even if you have always been healthy, you need to stay healthy. Know about the signs of depression, and watch for them not only in the person you are caring for but also in yourself. If you have feelings of lingering sadness or hopelessness, talk with your doctor.
- Get the support you need.
Helping a loved one with health problems can be emotionally difficult. If you are having trouble coping with your feelings, seek advice and counseling from family members, trained mental health professionals, or spiritual advisors.
Current as of: November 14, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine