Caring for Seniors with Heart Disease

Advice for families and caregivers

Having heart disease can be a frightening experience. For most people, living with it is a chronic condition, one that will go on for many years. During this time, a supportive and helpful caregiver can make an enormous difference.

Q&A for Seniors and Heart Disease
What can I do to help my parent live with heart disease?

Here are some significant things you can do:

  • Avoiding stress will help -- both for those who have chronic heart disease and those who have had an acute episode such as a heart attack. So do your best to get your family to avoid conflict with and in front of your parent.
  • Try to maintain a positive atmosphere, while honestly acknowledging and not disparaging your parent's understandable anxieties.
  • Whatever lifestyle changes were recommended by your parent's physician will be important, so encourage your parent to make those changes.
    • Reinforce the doctor's advice to take up exercise, which done regularly will make the heart and lungs stronger. This will enable the cardiovascular system to send more oxygen throughout the body with each heartbeat and the pulmonary system to bring in more oxygen.
    • Avoid smoking in front of your parent if he or she is supposed to give up smoking.
    • Similarly, if your parent is supposed to follow a low-fat diet, only eat low-fat foods in his or her presence and be positive about the experience, to help reinforce his or her behavior changes.
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Since her heart attack my parent is constantly exhausted. Is this a temporary or permanent condition?

Most people -- depending on the extent of damage in the heart attack -- find that their initial level of exhaustion is temporary and that they can gradually resume an active life.

  • Your parent should be increasing his or her activity level each day, at the pace recommended by his or her physician.
  • According to Jane Brody, health writer for The New York Times, the "core of cardiac rehab is a progressive exercise program to increase the ability of the heart to pump oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood more effectively throughout the body. The outcome is better endurance, greater ability to enjoy life and decreased mortality."
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What can I do to convince my parent who has heart disease to start exercising?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Have a family member or close friend offer to exercise along with your parent.
  • Encourage your parent to try exercising for just a week and see if he or she feels better at the end of the week.
  • If neither of these incentives help, consider discussing the problem with your parent's physician.


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My parent who has heart disease finds the low-fat, low-salt diet depressing. How can I help?

Your parent needs to learn to enjoy eating different kinds of foods, and that may take time. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Search for appealing low-fat recipes on the internet or purchase a low-fat cookbook for your parent.
  • Encourage your parent to try using different fresh spices -- such as cilantro, ginger, or thyme -- to add flavor to food, instead of salt.
  • Keep a close eye on your parent's depression. Depression is a frequent response to a heart attack, but if you find that your parent is depressed, hopeless, has low self-esteem and cries easily after a few months have passed, seek treatment for the depression -- which could interfere with recovery.
  • Many post-heart attack patients benefit from support groups. Contact your doctor, hospital or American Heart Association's Mended Hearts program to find one in your area, email, or call: 1-888-HEART99 (1-888-432-7899).
  • The AHA will also arrange for a visit from someone who has experienced heart disease if the patient prefers that.
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My parent who has heart disease feels hungry all the time on her low-fat diet. How can I help?

If your parent eats more vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products, as well as protein and whole grains -- all prepared in low-fat styles -- he or she will begin to feel less hungry.

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My parent who has heart disease feels that no one understands her situation. How can I help?
  • Suggest that your parent join a support group. Most cardiac rehabilitation centers offer them, and they will consist of others in the same situation, who will understand what your parent is going through. Plus, the group should help reinforce your parent's commitment to cardiac rehabilitation and to making necessary lifestyle changes.
  • As another option, here is a link to a cardiac support group for people with heart disease and their loved ones offered by the American Heart Association, with branches all over the country: Mended Hearts.
  • Or you can call 1-888-HEART99 (1-888-432-7899) or email to get information.
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My parent constantly fears he is having another heart attack. How can I help?

Anxiety is a normal response to a heart attack.

  • Encourage your parent to exercise -- only as much as his doctor recommends -- as a means of feeling less anxious.
  • Your parent should also engage in activities he or she enjoys.
  • Reassure your parent that with the recommended lifestyle changes -- eating well, exercising, resting when tired -- he or she should be okay.
  • Many heart patients have benefited from the regular practice of relaxation techniques, which have been found to decrease anxiety, boost the immune system and promote heart health.
  • Others find anti-anxiety medication -- prescribed by a physician -- helpful, either alone or in conjunction with relaxation techniques.
  • If your parent's anxiety persists and doesn't diminish, seek professional help.
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How can I help my parent who has heart disease deal with angina?

It isn't always easy to tell a heart attack from angina, and it takes practice.

  • Talk with the doctor about how to differentiate between the two based on the specific angina symptoms your parent is having, and what to do if these symptoms occur.
  • Relaxation techniques might help your parent with the chest pain. Since pain leads to anxiety, which will cause muscles to tighten and produce more pain, relaxing those muscles could help diminish the pain.
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My parent has heart disease and was told to stop smoking. How can I help?

Encourage your parent to try a stop-smoking program. Tell him or her that stopping smoking will reduce the chance of a repeat heart attack and death from heart disease by 50 percent, that nicotine in cigarettes causes less oxygen to go to the heart, increases blood pressure and heart rate, as well as blood clotting, and damages cells that line the arteries and other blood vessels.

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How can I help my parent who has heart disease to stop drinking?

Perhaps having a diagnosed heart condition will give your parent the incentive needed.

  • Remind your parent how important he or she is to you and your family, how much you want him or her to continue to be in your lives, and that you fear the alcohol will prevent that.
  • Encourage your parent to talk about it with a doctor, who can give him or her medicine to help withdraw from the alcohol and may be able to connect your parent with a local support group. Usually a combination of medication to decrease the effects of withdrawal, along with support, is needed.
  • Of course, there are Alcoholics Anonymous groups almost everywhere. Different groups will have different styles. Your parent should find the one with which he or she is most comfortable.
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How do I go about finding a caregiver for my parent who has heart disease? is a website that lists people throughout the United States who provide care to seniors, includes photos and descriptions of their experience, and does free background checks for members. You can search by zip code. For specific listings, go to:

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Other resources for Seniors and Heart Disease

New York Times Health Guides

Cleveland Clinic

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