If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
As more people survive and live longer with heart disease, adult children are increasingly becoming involved in their parent’s health care. They support their parents in making diet and lifestyle changes, taking multiple medications, recognizing side effects or new symptoms, figuring out health insurance claims – the list goes on.
Having a parent with a chronic health condition is one many people can relate to – including myself. I know it sometimes can be difficult to know how to help – or how much to help – but your care and support can make an enormous difference in managing their health, as well as retaining their independence.
Some of the most successful outcomes I’ve seen in patients came in large part because an adult child was keeping tabs on how the patient was feeling, managing medications and, in some cases, making key medical decisions for them.
Let’s discuss five ways you can assist in the care and support of an aging parent – and what you can do if you don’t live nearby. These suggestions can be scaled up or down depending on your parent’s health. And while I may be talking specifically about heart disease, these tips could be modified to work with any chronic health condition.
1. Learn about their heart condition
Heart disease can seem overwhelming – for the patient and their loved ones. If your parent agrees, accompany them to doctor appointments. It can help to have a second person in the room while a doctor explains things. You can take notes and ask questions. The information is more likely to stick if there’s more than one person listening in the room.
You know your parent and their needs better than the doctor. This insight can be especially valuable as health care continues to move toward a shared decision-making model, in which the doctor and patient work together to make decisions based on best practices and patient preferences and values.
It also may be a good idea to schedule an appointment in which there will be no physical exam or tests, but to simply get you up to speed on your loved one’s condition. Explain that you’re Mom’s or Dad’s helper and while they will join you, the appointment is for you.
Along with asking about what symptoms to watch for and what role you can play in their recovery and health, ask what the future looks like. This topic may be uncomfortable to discuss, but can be useful for planning if the condition progresses.
2. Watch for signs of heart problems
Providing a second set of eyes and ears may be the best way you can help a parent who has heart disease. Catching problems early can mean the potential for a better outcome.
Symptoms of heart problems may not be as obvious in older people. They may be subtler than chest pain. But if you know your parent’s health baseline, you may notice changes before a doctor – or in some cases – even your parent does.
Signs to be aware of, particularly if they appear suddenly, include:
- Do they seem fatigued? Are they sleeping more or longer?
- Does their breathing seem labored or “off”?
- Has their appetite declined?
- Is there increased swelling in the legs or ankles?
Your parent may not mention changes in their health. We often see in this in the “Greatest Generation.” They don’t want to be a bother. “It was just a little chest pain. I didn’t want to worry you.” Ask them direct questions about their health. For example, when I talk to my father, I ask, “How are you feeling, Dad? Anything bothering you?” And, include even more specific questions that relate to their personal health problems. For example, “How is your breathing today?”
3. Address potential heart problems
Don’t ignore warning signs. Encourage your parent to seek help, even if the symptom seems minor. Doing so could prevent a more dangerous situation.
Create a plan with your parent’s doctor to address potential problems. Ask the doctor:
- How can we reach you during the day or after hours?
- Do you offer same-day appointments?
- When should we go straight to the emergency room?
Knowing these answers can result in more streamlined and effective treatment. For example, a patient’s daughter may call and say, “Mom’s having some of the same symptoms she had previously when she was admitted to the hospital. But I think it’s too early to go to the ER. Can I bring her to the clinic?” We may be able to prevent an unnecessary hospital admission.
4. Assist with treatment, recovery and prevention efforts
Your parent’s doctor likely will send them home with a treatment and prevention plan. But there are all kinds of ways that a plan can be derailed. You can plan an important role in keeping their health plan on track.
- Track doctor appointments: Add your parent’s doctors’ appointments – or reminders to schedule appointments – to your personal calendar. This way you can help them remember and ensure they have transportation. If your parent agrees, join them at appointments as a second set of eyes and ears.
- Manage medications: Medication adherence is crucial in preventing secondary events. Your parent may get frustrated or confused if they are taking multiple medications. Make sure you understand the drug’s purpose, how and when to take it, the potential side effects, and when it needs to be refilled. And, don’t be afraid to ask if any medications can be safely stopped. This can help in several ways including helping control the number of pills your family member takes, and ensuring that each pill provides a meaningful health benefit. Find more tips to improve medication management.
- Monitor blood pressure: Blood pressure is a vital measurement we use to assess heart health. But sometimes, the readings may not be accurate during a doctor’s visit. The stress of being in a doctor’s office can cause blood pressure to rise, a condition we call “white-coat hypertension.” The doctor may recommend regular blood pressure monitoring at home. Learn how to monitor your blood pressure at home.
- Support lifestyle changes: Your parent may be asked to make significant changes in diet and exercise. Offer to help with grocery shopping or cooking. When possible, join them in diet changes or physical activity. The American Heart Association says people are 76 percent more likely to follow a walking program if someone is counting on them to show up.
5. Organize health-related records such as insurance, advance directives
Navigating health insurance plans can be confusing for anyone. But it may be especially difficult for your 85-year-old mother or father. Look at their plan and know what benefits are included. This can become useful, for example, to ensure they don’t defer care they should be getting.
Discuss your parent’s preferences regarding end-of-life-care. Who would they like to make medical decisions for them should they be unable, and which treatments would they want and not want? Although these conversations can be painful, they’re important decisions that will help ease the burden on the family should your parent’s condition worsen. Prepare an advance directive and make their wishes known to close family.
What if you don’t live near your parent?
There are all sorts of creative ways to communicate and keep tabs on someone in our tech-enabled world. Many jokes are made about older generations not being able to use technology, but I’ve found my elderly patients remarkably adaptable when it comes to learning how to use some of these devices, especially if it allows them to see and talk with their children and grandchildren.
Make use of apps such as FaceTime, WhatsApp or Skype to not only talk with your parent, but also to physically check for symptoms. You could set up a standing time to talk each day to make sure they have taken their medication or completed their physical therapy.
You also could use video monitoring for some details. This may sound spooky, but it could be as simple as mounting a camera over the pill organizer to ensure that your parent is taking their medication every day.
Finally, don’t forget to look after yourself as well. Surround yourself with a support system that can give you a break from caring for a parent when you need it and to help you manage the emotions you may face from day to day. Also, heart disease can run in families, so talk to your doctor about your own heart risks and what you can do to prevent future problems.