February is Heart Month, a time to bring attention to the importance of cardiovascular health.Managing heart failure is not an easy task and if a loved one has been diagnosed they may not be able to do it alone. Day-to-day tasks can become more challenging and the diet and lifestyle changes, medications and stress can be very difficult to control. As a caregiver you can help and support your loved one adjust their lifestyle, follow their treatment plan, maximize their quality of life and provide a much-needed source of care and support.
What is congestive heart failure?
Congestive heart failure (CHF) doesn’t mean that the heart has stopped working but that it can’t pump enough blood to keep up with the body’s needs. A weakened heart moves blood through the body at a slower rate, which causes it to pool inside the heart and veins. This pressure in the blood vessels forces fluid into the lungs, arms, legs, ankles, and other organs and the body becomes ‘congested’. This congestion in your lungs and lack of oxygen can make you feel tired and short of breath especially during activity or when under stress.
What causes CHF?
Congestive heart failure has many causes or underlying risk factors and is often a combination of a few. The most common cause of CHF is heart muscle damage following a heart attack. The second most common cause of heart failure is high blood pressure left untreated. Heart failure may also be due to:
- Heart valve problems
- High blood cholesterol
- Lung disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Alcohol or drug use
- Thyroid disease
What you can do?
Although heart failure is a progressive disease that can’t be cured, through proper treatment and necessary lifestyle changes people can and do live active, healthy lives for many years. Here are some ways to help your loved one:
Become an expert. Read as much as you can about the symptoms, causes and possible complications of CHF. If possible, participate in doctor’s visits by asking questions and taking notes. This knowledge will make you a better and more informed caregiver.
Start a log. Encourage your loved one to get in the habit of recording the following information every day: weight, diet, activity level, medications (name, doses, times and side effects) and other symptoms like breathing concerns, swelling, tiredness etc. Also, as they come up, jot dot any questions or concerns that you or your loved one want to bring up with the doctor. This will help you recognize any changes to the condition, provide your doctor with accurate, up-to-date reports and make the most of your visits. Daily logs will also help your loved one be open and honest with their lifestyle, which is critical to treatment.
Know when to get help. Make sure you and your loved one know when it’s time to call a doctor. Worrisome symptoms include:
- Weight gain of two or more pounds overnight or five pounds in a week
- Swelling in hands, ankles or feet
- Confusion, dizziness or faintness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Difficulty breathing or coughing at night
- Increased fatigue
- Muscle cramps or weakness
- Decreased urination
Keep your doctor’s contact information handy and make sure everyone knows where to find it.
Mind the medication. One of the most important ways to manage CHF and its symptoms is through medication. Know the drugs your loved one needs to take, how often and what to do if he or she misses a dose. Use pillboxes, post a daily medication schedule on the refrigerator and have your loved one check them off after each dose.
Get moving. Although surprising, a person with CHF should stay as active as possible. Even short bursts of moderate exercise will strengthen the heart, help with weight management, decrease cholesterol and blood pressure and improve circulation. Push your loved one to walk around the neighbourhood, choose the stairs instead of the elevator, get outside and garden and do work around the house. Of course you should always talk to a doctor about what activities they can safely enjoy.
Encourage heart-healthy eating. Following a diet designed for people with heart failure can significantly decrease symptoms. Help your loved one eat a healthy diet based on Canada’s Food Guide by enjoying plenty of fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains, low-fat meats or alternatives and low fat milk products. They should also limit sodium and fluid intakes, decrease caffeine consumption and avoid alcohol. Realize that it’s not easy to change a lifetime of bad eating habits, acknowledge that it’s difficult and listen to your loved one’s concerns.
Make it a joint effort: Changing to a healthy lifestyle is that much easier if you have a partner to motivate each other. Don’t cook separate meals and instead enjoy the healthier option together. If you also smoke, stop smoking at the same time and try to exercise together every day. These changes are all great preventative measures for your own heart health too, so join in!
Take care of you: Looking after a loved one with congestive heart failure can be mentally and physically exhausting, especially in the advanced stages. To be an effective and loving caregiver you need to look after your own health and outlook. To make the situation more manageable be sure to:
- Make time for the activities you enjoy.
- Talk to a doctor or therapist if you’re feeling anxious or depressed.
- Eat properly and do something active every day.
- Ask for help when you need it from family members, friends, a visiting nurse, a food delivery or housekeeping service.
- Reach out to other people dealing with the same daily challenges.
Don’t expect your loved one to follow all the doctor’s orders right away. It will take a while to adopt new habits and leave bad ones behind. As a caregiver you have a big impact on your loved one’s success, try to stay positive and praise the changes they do make. Being a caregiver can be extremely stressful and isolating but with the right planning and enough support you can improve their quality of life and enjoy the love that it requires.