While many people might ignore a simple cough, a slight wheeze or occasional chest pain, it’s essential to pay attention to these seemingly insignificant symptoms, especially in older adults. Although some difficulty breathing can be a normal part of the aging process, it can also indicate the presence of a more serious underlying health issue. Breathing problems are a hallmark of lung diseases, such as asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, pulmonary edema and chronic bronchitis. The American Lung Association estimates that more than 16.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, but millions more may have this disease without even knowing it.
Living with pulmonary illness is often uncomfortable and exhausting, and caring for someone with lung disease can be daunting. With a few tips and some education under their belts, caregivers can play an extremely important role in helping aging loved ones manage their symptoms. Family members often help recognize signs of new or worsening health conditions and ensure that those in their care avoid medical crises.
At Partners in Care, an affiliate of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York that provides private in-home care services, skilled nurses and licensed home health aides are specially trained to work with people suffering from a variety of pulmonary conditions. Families coping with lung disease care at home can benefit from the following guidelines that our experts use with clients in the field.
Keep a Personal Health Journal
By keeping track of personal wellness information, you will be able to provide all members of your loved one’s care team with accurate and up-to-date reports on their status with ease. You and your family member should get in the habit of recording the following information each day:
- Breathing patterns (easy, difficult, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, etc.)
- Medications (names, doses, times, as well as any adverse side effects and improvements in symptoms)
- Dietary and digestive changes
- Sleep habits and quality
- Blood pressure, cardiac rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation (It’s important to establish baseline data so you can identify any sudden changes in your loved one’s condition. The tools used to monitor vital signs are easily available for rental or purchase.)
- Exercise/activities that require physical exertion and how each affects their breathing (This includes simple tasks and changes in mobility like walking to the mailbox or bathing.)
Consistent entries that track your loved one’s symptoms, treatments and activities also help medical professionals detect important patterns that can influence care planning.
Diet Tips for Seniors with Lung Disease
The American Lung Association has several dietary recommendations for people who are living with 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, boost their energy levels and improve their daily function.
- Encourage your loved one 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 less stress on their diaphragm and allows for 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 in the day, try to get them to eat their main meal in the morning or at lunchtime.
- Try to avoid foods that may cause gas. Bloating can be especially uncomfortable for a person who has difficulty breathing.
- Make sure the meals you serve are nutritious. Someone who has COPD or other lung complications may be taking steroids long term. While these medications are a crucial part of managing their disease, they can interfere with metabolism of vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D. Check with the doctor to see if dietary supplements might be a good addition to your loved one’s routine.
Tips for Exercising and Staying Active with Lung Disease
Although a loved one who is constantly short of breath may struggle to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) and household tasks, regular light exercise can improve their blood oxygen levels, sleep quality and cardiovascular function. It can be challenging to get a resistant elder to exercise, but even a shower, a brief walk down the driveway, 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 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 additional assistance with managing their symptoms. Make sure that you and your loved one discuss any new exercise regimens with their doctor beforehand to ensure they are safe and appropriate.
Tips for Improving Indoor 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 the lungs. Remember, it’s never too late to stop smoking. Even if your loved one does not smoke, second-hand smoke, allergens, chemicals and mold can also trigger flare-ups and exacerbate symptoms.
- Help your loved one keep their home clean, but avoid using strong-smelling cleaning agents, air fresheners and other heavily fragranced products like perfumes and candles.
- Regular vacuuming and dusting will help minimize their 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 number 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.
Tips for Sleeping Better with Lung Disease
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 lying completely flat. They may start sleeping in their favorite recliner or propping themselves up with pillows in an attempt to breathe better at night, but these settings typically aren’t conducive to 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 or a trip to the emergency room. Keep in mind that seniors with chronic lung problems like COPD are at higher risk for developing severe or life-threatening complications from illnesses like the common cold, the flu and the novel coronavirus. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends seeking medical attention if a loved one has:
- Increasingly difficult breathing or wheezing during usual activities or while talking
- 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
- Shortness of breath that interrupts sleep
- Blue or gray lips or fingernails that indicate low blood oxygen levels
- Changes in alertness
Prevent Caregiver Burnout By Taking Care of Yourself
Finally, it is essential to remember that providing quality care for someone with lung disease can be a long-term process. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it may be helpful to learn as much as possible about your loved one’s condition in order to manage expectations. Talk to your own doctor about options for respite care and managing stress. Support groups can also connect you with a network of caring people who are in similar situations and can share their experiences and advice. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to see what support groups, community programs and other resources are available to help you care for your loved one.