Caring for a Loved One with Lung Disease

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While many people ignore a simple cough, a slight wheeze, or a little chest pain, it’s essential to pay attention to even these seemingly insignificant symptoms, especially for older Americans in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Although difficulty breathing can be a normal part of the aging process, it can also signal the start of a more serious problem or even lung disease such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, or chronic bronchitis. More than 12.7 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with COPD, and it is most common in people 65-74 years old, according to the American Lung Association.

Pulmonary illness is often painful and exhausting for the person coping with it personally, and caring for someone with the disease can be equally daunting. Family caregivers can play an extremely important role in assisting someone with lung disease. They often help recognize symptoms and signs that conditions may be worsening and help ensure that their loved one avoids medical crises.

At Partners in Care, skilled nurses and licensed home health aides are specially trained to work with people suffering from a variety of pulmonary conditions and illness. Here are a few guidelines used by our experts in the field that I hope will be helpful to families coping with lung disease care at home.

Keep a Daily Health Log

By keeping track of personal information you will be able to provide the doctor with accurate and up-to-date reports on their current status. You and your family member should get in the habit of recording the following information each day:

  • Breathing patterns (easy, difficult, coughing, wheezing, etc.);
  • Medications (names, doses, times, as well as any side effects);
  • Dietary and digestive changes;
  • Sleep habits and quality;
  • Blood pressure, cardiac rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation. It is important to establish baseline data so you can identify any sudden changes, and the tools necessary to monitor these vital signs are easily available for rental or purchase.
  • Make note of any regular exercise or physical activities—even something as simple as walking to the mailbox—and how changes in mobility affect their breathing.

Dietary Tips

The American Lung Association has a number of recommendations for people who are suffering from lung disease. Aside from eating a healthy and nutritious diet, there are a few hints and tips that can help a loved one get the nutrition they need and improve their daily function.

  • Try to maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can make it more difficult to breathe effectively.
  • Instead of eating three larger meals, try to spread out four to six smaller meals throughout the day. This will leave your loved one feeling less full, which puts lets stress on their diaphragm and allows easier breathing.
  • Lung disease can cause patients to feel tired and lethargic, so resting before meals is advised. If your loved one becomes fatigued later on in the day, try to get them to eat their main meal in the morning or at lunchtime.
  • Try to avoid food that may cause gas. Bloating can be especially uncomfortable for a person who has difficulty breathing.
  • Make sure your meals are nutritious. Someone who has COPD or other lung complications may be taking steroids long term and while these medications are crucial, they can interfere with metabolism of vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D. Check with your doctor to see if a supplement might be a good addition to your loved one’s routine.

Tips for Exercise and Activity

Although a loved one who is constantly short of breath may struggle with normal daily and personal care tasks, regular light exercise can improve many things like their oxygen levels, sleep quality and cardiovascular function. It can be challenging to get a resistant elder to exercise, but even a shower, walk around the property, breathing exercises or a light stretching session can help. Just keep in mind that a patient may have to rest between seemingly simple activities, especially as their condition progresses. This can mean that bathing or other activities can take an extended period of time, but patience is key. Allowing them to (safely) remain as independent as possible will help them stay healthy and active both emotionally and physically.

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR/Rehab) is also a good option for individuals who need some assistance with managing their condition. Make sure that you and the patient talk with their doctor to ensure that any exercise plans are in line with the patient’s capacity.

Tips for Improving Air Quality

It is important for someone with limited lung function to minimize their exposure to irritants and air pollution. If your family member is a smoker, do everything you can to help them quit. Cigarette smoke harms nearly every organ of the body, damaging airways and the small air sacs (alveoli) found in your lungs. Remember, it’s never too late to stop smoking. If your loved one does not smoke, second hand sources, allergens, chemicals and mold can also pose numerous problems for their lung function.

  • Keep your home clean, but avoid using strong-smelling cleaning agents, air fresheners and other heavily fragranced products like perfumes and candles.
  • Make sure to vacuum and dust regularly to minimize exposure to dust, dust mites, pet dander, and mold spores. It is best to use a vacuum with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter to reduce the amount of irritating particles that are thrown back into the air in the cleaning process. Also minimize or regularly clean fabric curtains, rugs and carpeting, throw pillows, and other décor that can harbor irritants.
  • Check that there are no wet or persistently damp areas in the home that may promote mold or mildew growth. Common problem areas include air conditioning units, bathrooms, basements and refrigerator drip pans. Keep these areas well ventilated and as clean and dry as possible.

Sleeping Tips

Normal activities such as sleep can be easily interrupted by reduced lung function. Many people with lung disease find it more difficult to breathe while laying completely flat. They may choose to start sleeping in their favorite recliner or try to prop themselves up with pillows. These settings typically aren’t conducive to a full night’s worth of quality sleep. An adjustable bed base or frame or even a hospital bed may be a better option over the long-term. Sleep apnea is also a risk which can have an even stronger detrimental effect on a person with lung disease. If you suspect sleep apnea in a loved one, a sleep study may be in order.

Know When to Call the Doctor

Living with lung disease can be frightening at times, so it’s important to know what symptoms merit a call to the doctor. The U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends seeking medical attention if a loved one has:

  • Increasingly difficult breathing or wheezing during usual activities;
  • Increased coughing, an increase in mucus or chest pain with coughing;
  • Mucus that is bloody, has an odor, or is green or yellow;
  • Swollen hands, ankles or feet;
  • Markedly increased fatigue;
  • Muscle cramps or weakness; or
  • Shortness of breath that interrupts sleep.

Finally, it is essential to remember that caring for someone with lung disease can be difficult and can require quality care and attention. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to talk to your doctor and learn as much as you can about your loved one’s condition. Support groups are also beneficial, and can provide you with local resources and a network of caring people who are in similar situations.

Jennifer Leeflang, RN, heads Partners in Care, a licensed home care agency which is a part of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), the nation's largest not for profit home and community care organization.

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