Caring for Seniors with Breathing Problems

Advice for families and caregivers

Seniors with serious breathing problems take in less oxygen and therefore have less energy to conduct daily life. As a result they often feel tired, anxious, and depressed. The help of caregivers becomes increasingly important as the disease progresses.

Q&A for Seniors and Breathing Problems
How can I help my parent who has breathing problems?

In COPD (another name for emphysema or chronic bronchitis), the tubes and air sacks that bring air in and out of the lungs are obstructed, preventing an adequate air supply from entering.

In emphysema, the air sacks (alveoli) in the lungs are damaged, usually from smoking, but also from pollution, preventing them from filling with fresh air.

In chronic bronchitis, the primary airways in the lungs are chronically inflamed.

Finally, in asthma the inside walls of the airways are inflamed and highly sensitive to irritants, becoming more narrow and making breathing more difficult when exposed to these irritants.

People with chronic bronchitis are at increased risk of developing infections, and those with other breathing problems are at risk of having infections exacerbate these problems. To prevent infections, encourage your parent to:

  • Wash both hands frequently.
  • Stay away from people who are ill.
  • Take a daily vitamin.
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins and will build up your parent's immune system.
  • Try a zinc supplement, which some studies have found may help reduce infections in the elderly.
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How can I reduce the chance that my parent who has breathing problems will become ill at home?

Reducing indoor air pollution can help strengthen your parent's lung health.

  • If your parent doesn't have central air conditioning, which filters and then circulates cool air, consider getting it for him or her or having your parent move somewhere that has it. But be sure to change the filters frequently, as it is imperative to get all irritants out of the air.
  • Make sure there is no mold anywhere in the home, as mold can irritate the lungs.
  • Use only vacuum cleaners with HEPA air filters that trap the dust.
  • Wash bed linens, pillows, and curtains in hot water to kill any dust mites.
  • Remove any pets from the home.
  • Remove all carpets.
  • Do not paint the inside of your home or redo the floors with polyurethane coating, as paint and polyurethane can irritate lungs.
  • Always run a fan that vents to the outdoors for at least 20 minutes when cooking or showering, as this will help avoid moisture buildup, which can lead to mold.
  • Finally, don't allow anyone to use any aerosol sprays or scented products on themselves if they will be with your parent, or in your parent's home, as they can cause breathing problems for many with lung problems.
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My parent who has breathing problems is weak due to inadequate oxygen. How can I help?

Your parent needs to learn how to conserve energy.

  • Exercising can help tone your parent's muscles and get them to work more efficiently, helping to counteract the loss of muscle mass and strength due to inadequate oxygen. Working with his or her doctor, your parent should try to gradually build up how many steps he can take till he or she is a bit stronger.
  • Some communities have lung rehabilitation programs that could be very helpful, gradually strengthening your parent and teaching him or her ways to cough and manage bronchial drainage more effectively.
  • One tip that works for many people is to rest for an hour after each meal, to give the body time to digest the food eaten before using energy on something else.
  • Here are other ways your parent can conserve energy:
    • Your parent can try keeping the things he or she needs right by his or her chair, so that it isn't necessary to move very much to get them.
    • Your parent can immediately set the table with dishes and silverware he or she removes from the dishwasher -- saving the energy of putting them away in the cabinets and then removing them to set the table.
    • Your parent can put pots and pans back on the stove after washing them, to save the energy of having to bend to put them away and then to get them out again.
  • If your parent lives alone, find someone else to prepare meals, shop and do chores for him or her.
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My parent who has breathing problems is very anxious since he never gets enough oxygen. How can I help?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Anti-anxiety medication, which must be prescribed by a physician, can be very helpful in reducing your parent's anxiety level and can greatly enhance his or her sense of well-being.
  • In addition, your parent might consider trying one of the many relaxation techniques. Anxiety causes tightening of muscles, while relaxing the muscles, which in some cases can widen respiratory passages, decreases chest pain, and counters anxiety while strengthening the immune system.
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Would any dietary changes help my parent's breathing problems?

Certain dietary changes may help:

  • Some people with COPD find that eating fewer carbohydrates and more fats helps them to breathe more easily.
  • Also, to maintain healthy respiratory muscles, it is important to eat protein at least twice a day.
  • Eating several small meals during the day, as opposed to three large ones, can help your parent's breathing. This is because a full stomach presses against the diaphragm, preventing the lungs from filling completely, and because digesting a large meal pulls blood and oxygen to the stomach and away from the lungs, where it is more needed.
  • Finally, since breathing uses up a great deal of your parent's energy, he or she may need to take in more calories.
  • The American Lung Association website provides some recipes that can be especially helpful for lung patients.
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Are there any clothing tips that could help my parent's breathing problems?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Your parent should avoid anything tight in the chest or abdomen that could restrict breathing, such as belts, bras and girdles.
  • Heavy clothing, such as coats and sweaters, can be exhausting, as these items require extra energy to wear.
  • Finally, trying on clothing can itself be tiring. Instead, encourage your parent to measure him- or herself with a tape measure or be measured by someone. Knowing these measurements will enable your parent to buy clothes either on line (thereby saving the energy needed to shop) or in a store, without trying them on. Before purchasing the clothes, however, your parent should make sure that they can be returned, and by what date.


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How can grocery shopping be made easier for my parent who has breathing problems?

Here are some suggestions:

  • When your parent's groceries are being bagged, he or she can request that perishables be bagged together. Then, when your parent gets home, only the perishables bag must be put away as soon as possible, while the other items can wait until he or she feels less tired.
  • Of course, another option is to have someone shop for your parent or to order online, if that is available where your parent lives.
  • Finally, having a handicapped parking sticker can save your parent energy by enabling him or her to park closer to the store.
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Why are my parent's breathing problems better on some days and worse on others?

Most lung patients have good and bad days. One cause may be air pollution. On days that are polluted outside, most lung patients have increased difficulty breathing.

Many local TV and radio stations provide an air quality report daily, as do many local newspapers and the weather station on cable TV, so your parent can check to make sure the air quality is adequate before going outside.

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How can I get my parent who has breathing problems to stop smoking?

If your parent is still smoking, continue to encourage him or her to stop. Let your parent know how important he or she is to you and your family, and that you want him or her to stay alive and participate in your family's life.

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My parent has breathing problems and says the medication isn't helping enough. What should I do?

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Make an appointment with your parent's lung specialist and accompany him or her there to ask questions and keep a written record of what the doctor has said. Many elderly patients either don't clearly hear what the doctor says, or misremember the instructions. Having someone there to take good notes can be very helpful. Afterward, print out easy-to-follow instructions, based on your notes, and put several laminated copies around your parent's house so your parent can find them easily.
  • In case your parent isn't a good advocate for him- or herself, having you -- or another relative or friend -- at the doctor's office to reinforce your parent's perception that the medication is not working can help him or her obtain more effective treatment.
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How can I help my parent who has breathing problems to socialize, since he finds going out too tiring?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Help your parent apply for a handicapped parking sticker. These can be obtained from your state's registry of motor vehicles, and the application usually requires a doctor's signature. Having a handicapped sticker would ensure that your parent could always park close to the entrance of the building he or she is going to and might enable your parent to get out more.
  • Of course, many communities provide rides for seniors, which would be another option.
  • Or you can see if your parent will take a cab.
  • Another option is to see if a friend or relative will drive your parent.
  • Finally, talk with your parent about inviting friends and/or relatives over, so he or she can socialize without leaving home.
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How can I help my parent who fears dying alone from a breathing crisis?
  • One popular option is a panic button which can be worn around the neck. Your parent can press the button and be immediately connected to someone who will assess the emergency and call for help as needed. These panic buttons are offered by many different companies. Here is a link to one of them:
  • Some lung patients arrange to have friends or relatives call at the same time each day to make sure they are all right.
  • Others have signals with neighbors, such as if their curtains look a certain way, then they are all right.


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What can I do to help my parent with depression due to breathing problems?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Suggest that your parent join a support group for people dealing with the same or similar issues.
    • The American Lung Association runs Better Breathers, support groups for those with chronic lung disease that both educate and offer opportunities to share experiences. To find out more, go to or call 1-800-LUNG-USA.
    • Other groups might be run at your local hospital.
  • If your parent tries joining a group and is still depressed, or chooses not to try a group, encourage him or her to get treated for his depression, and make sure that the treatment is working. Having difficulty breathing is exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and understandably depressing.
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How do I go about finding a caregiver for my parent who has breathing problems? 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 Breathing Problems

The American Lung Association

The New York Times

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