10 Things Caregivers Should Know About COPD

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Caregivers play an integral part in treating patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While caregiving isn't always easy, it greatly improves the lives of loved ones with the disease.

"Getting patients with COPD back to a functional quality of life is absolutely doable," says Linda Nici, MD, of the American Thoracic Society's board of directors. "Part of that is staying in the mind-set that caregivers can help."

Here's what caregivers should know to improve the lives of their loved ones with COPD -- and their own:

  1. Stay active.
    "Shortness of breath is distressing, can make patients fearful, and often leads them to withdraw from physical activity," says Nici. It can also be scary for caregivers who see their loved ones struggling. But encouraging patients to do things for themselves -- even if it's just walking to get the newspaper -- helps them stay healthy, prevents muscle weakness, and can help keep symptoms in check.

  2. Stay social.
    Combat the tendency for patients to withdraw from social activity. Even if activities take a little longer, or take a couple of days to recover from, staying social curbs the depression that often comes from withdrawing socially.

  3. Steer clear of irritants.
    Keep patients away from environmental factors that can irritate the lungs, like products with strong chemical odors. Stay indoors on days with pollution warnings, and keep patients away from tobacco smoke. When irritants are unavoidable, be patient and remember that it might take a little longer for your loved one to get around.

  4. Keep tabs.
    Nici stresses the importance of recognizing signs of symptom exacerbation, the worsening of symptoms outside normal day-to-day variation, which can lead to further decline. Caregivers can help notice changes in symptoms including excessive trouble breathing, increased coughing, tiredness or weakness, increased mucus production, cramping muscles, or swelling in the extremities. Early recognition helps shorten the length of symptoms and how long they impact activity.

  5. Go to doctor appointments.
    It always helps to have a second pair of ears when attending physician appointments. Write down what the doctor says, and keep a notebook with questions and notes on symptoms between visits.

  6. Stay on top of medications.
    Between doctor visits, make sure patients are getting their prescribed doses of medication. "Many patients think they can use their inhaler as needed, but it's like any other medication and needs to be taken as prescribed," says Nici.

  7. Encourage rehab.
    Pulmonary rehabilitation can increase strength and quality of life and reduce shortness of breath. Nici encourages caregivers to go to rehab and watch the exercises. "It shows the caregiver how much patients actually can do for themselves," she says.

  8. Strike a balance.
    Chronic disease can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to maintain quality of life for everybody involved. Take time for yourself and keep a normal routine. Realize that you don't have to be on call 24/7. Let your loved one know that you're there if needed, but make sure he or she works on self-management as well.

  9. Communicate.
    Keep lines of communication open. Voicing your needs and frustrations to your loved ones helps preserve relationships.

  10. Get help from friends and family.
    "Having a network of people is crucial," says Nici. Networks keep you social, and if you need help, you can reach out to family or friends.

Make yourself as knowledgeable as you can about COPD. Take advantage and ask questions of professionals in the field. "Educate yourself and know that COPD has a place in the patient's life and your own, but it doesn't have to be the complete focus," says Nici.