When someone you care about is diagnosed with coronary artery disease, there’s a lot to learn. Whether they’ve had a heart attack or found out after testing, you may have questions or want to help them manage the condition.
Support from family members and close friends means a lot. But there’s a fine line between caring and overstepping.
“It shifts your relationship when someone is newly diagnosed with a serious condition,” says Ellen Carbonell, program manager and clinical lead in the Health and Aging Department at Rush University Medical Center’s Social Work and Community Health Department. “Many times, a caregiver starts feeling as though they need to be the one in charge of the other person. But that doesn’t usually work.”
Carolyn Thomas, a blogger at MyHeartSisters.org and author of A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease, says that after she had a heart attack in 2008, her two grown children responded very differently. Her son mostly wanted to spend more time with her. And her daughter devoured information about heart disease and then cleaned out Thomas’s cabinets, fridge, and freezer and filled them with heart-healthy foods. Thomas says she appreciated both approaches.
Start by doing these things to support your loved one.
Learn as Much as You Can
The more you know, the better. It will help you support your friend or family member.
Offer to join them when they see their doctor, physical therapist, or nutritionist. And don’t stay in the waiting room. Go into the room with them.
“It’s really hard to remember everything when you’re getting lots of information really quickly,” says Carbonell, a licensed clinical social worker. “You can write things down and take notes.”
Also, make sure you know the common red-flag symptoms of a heart attack so you can call 911 if your loved one has them:
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling weak or light-headed
- Pain or discomfort in the chest, jaw, neck, back, shoulder, or arm.
- Nausea and vomiting (more likely to be symptoms in women)
Other signs that require medical attention include rapid weight gain, swelling of the legs or ankles, fatigue, appetite loss, trouble sleeping, swelling or pain in the belly, or a dry, hacking cough, according to the American Heart Association. Many other things can cause those problems, so a doctor’s guidance is key.
Provide Emotional Support
After a heart attack, cardiac procedure, or new diagnosis, it’s not unusual for people to feel anxious, depressed, scared, or angry. They may feel less control over their life or frustrated if simple tasks tire them out.
Don’t try to “fix” those feelings. Simply spend time with them and be an empathetic listener. If you’re not sure what to say, that’s OK.
“Often just being there is the nicest thing you can do,” Thomas says.
You might need to edit yourself a bit. For instance, don’t give advice or share the story of someone who had a similar diagnosis or cardiac event.
“Sometimes people will interrupt your story and say, ‘My Aunt Stella had the exact same thing and here’s what happened to her,’ ” Thomas says. “It feels like they are minimizing or dismissing your story.”
You can also encourage your friend or family member to join a local or online support group. (The American Heart Association offers online forums at supportnetwork.heart.org). If they still seem depressed after a few weeks, ask if you can help connect them to a counselor or therapist.
Offer Help and Make It Easy to Say ‘Yes’
Depending on their situation, your friend or family member may need help with practical things like grocery shopping, doing laundry, cleaning, and cooking meals for a while -- such as if they’re recovering after a heart attack or a bypass operation.
If many people want to help, create a sign-up where friends and family members can register to help with different tasks.
Be specific about how you can help. Don’t say, “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” because most people won’t pick up the phone and ask you to run an errand or to clean out their kitty litter box.
Thomas appreciated it when people called from the grocery store and said, “I’m in the store. Is there anything I can pick up for you?”
Here are some other specific ways to offer help:
- “I’m going to bring dinner on Thursday. Do you want lasagna or chicken?”
- “I can’t sit still. Do you have any laundry I can fold?” (when you’re visiting)
- “Can I get your kids for a play date? My kids are bored.”
- “I am wide open on Monday. Can I run an errand or drive you somewhere?”
You can be a key support in helping your friend or family member make recommended changes to their habits. But if the person feels that you are overstepping, that creates a situation that frustrates both of you, says Robyn Golden, a licensed clinical social worker and associate vice president of social work and community health at Rush University Medical Center.
“I hear this from couples a lot: that one person is always saying, ‘You can’t eat this. You can’t eat that,’ and it creates a lot of tension,” she says.
Nagging rarely works, Golden says, and it can also damage your relationship. She suggests that instead, try to agree on boundaries that are reasonable and give gentle reminders.
For example, you could jointly agree to eat heart-healthy meals at home and keep high-sodium and high-fat foods out of the house. “Then, if the person with heart disease decides they’re going to the store to buy a candy bar, that’s on them,” Golden says. “You can remind them, ‘Hey that’s not on the list.’ But that’s different than saying, ‘You’re not allowed to have that. You need to put it down.’ ”
Acknowledge and celebrate even the smallest positive changes -- say, when they forgo a cookie for a healthier snack -- and try to let go of any guilt. You can be there for your loved one, but you’re not in full control of what happens.
“It can be helpful to realize -- and this is scary -- that you are not responsible for keeping the other person alive,” Golden says.
Promote Cardiac Rehab
Encourage your family member to ask their doctor about cardiac rehabilitation, a medically supervised program that includes exercise training and counseling on heart-healthy living.
Research shows cardiac rehab reduces the risk of future heart problems and death from heart disease.
“Cardiac rehab really works,” Thomas says. “It’s far better for cardiac rehab staff to say to a patient, ‘Here’s your exercise plan for this week’ than for you to say it.”
Work Out Together
Everyone needs to be physically active for their health. So why not join your loved one who has coronary artery disease in getting fit?
Any activity you do will be more fun together, and you’ll give your own health a boost.
Find an activity you can do together. Studies show that people who have an exercise buddy do physical activity more consistently than those who go solo.
Not sure where to start? Talk with the person about what they like to do, Carbonell suggests. Could you schedule regular walks in a nearby park or around the mall? Would they enjoy taking a dance class with you? If they prefer to work out at home, maybe you could do an online exercise class together a few times a week.
If you’re the main caregiver for someone with coronary artery disease, there can be a lot to juggle.
Remember, you don’t need to do it on your own, Carbonell says. Partner with their doctor, and recruit friends and family to pitch in. If that’s hard, make a list of things that would be helpful, whether it’s taking a walk with your loved one or joining you for coffee.
When someone asks how they can help, look at the list and share some options, she says.
Also, seek out resources and support groups for caregivers. “There are so many ways for caregivers to get support right now,” Golden says. “There are all kinds of things out there, many very helpful, many free of charge. It’s just a matter of searching for them on a computer.”