Becoming a Caregiver for a Loved One with Heart Failure

By Dorothy Foltz-Gray. Medically reviewed by Niki Barr, PhD. May 7th 2016

Heart failure refers to the declining ability of the heart to pump blood.

Depending on the part of the heart that is failing, different kinds of congestion and ensuing symptoms — sometimes called congestive heart failure — may occur.

Caring for an aging parent or another loved one either recovering from a heart ailment or in the throes of serious heart failure, can be all-consuming, exhausting and emotional. “Caregivers often feel guilty if they think about themselves,” says licensed social worker Kay Kendall, MSW, of the Heart Transplant Team at Cleveland Clinic, co-author of The Comfort of Home for Chronic Heart Failure: A Guide for Caregivers.

Becoming a New Caregiver

“First, you need to learn more about heart disease and heart failure, and how your loved one’s illness is likely to progress,” says Kendall. “You will also need to assess what your loved one is going to need from you and who else will be able to help you — a family member, friends, services through insurance or through community organizations.”

It will also be essential to keep up your own routine of work, exercise, regular mealtimes and bedtimes, says Kendall. “We enter the world needing stability. In times of stress, routine and predictability can provide comfort.”

According to the AARP report, “Caregivers: Life Changes and Coping Strategies,” almost half of caregivers say their social lives have worsened, and more than half feel overweight and underactive while caring for the patient. One in five family caregivers feel guilty and a third are clinically depressed, says Kendall.  For more information, read Family Caregivers Need a Break.

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of your self is essential. “You can’t be of help if you don’t help yourself,” says Kay Kendall, MSW. That’s not thoughtlessness or self-centeredness. It’s just wise.”

“When caregivers of those with advanced heart disease don’t take care of themselves, they tend not to sleep or eat well, get sick themselves, or experience depression and anxiety,” she says. “Health issues that are controllable may become problematic.”

Although initially caregiving can feel overwhelming, take stock of how you can best structure the care you give – as well as your own life – to keep caregiver stress and illness at bay.

Next Steps

 Here are some tips for caregivers and self-care.

  • Investigate resources. Information about the heart condition your loved one has can help you map your caregiving plan. The American Heart Association offers a resource section that explains how to construct a healthcare team, and possible changes you might observe in your loved one.
  • Tune into caregiver burnout. Signs of anxiety include sleeplessness, appetite changes, irritability, crying or withdrawing, says Kendall. You also may find your organized self suddenly having a hard time pulling things together. “If you notice these signs, reach out to a therapist or nurse practitioner for advice and next steps,” Kendall says.  
  • Sustain your career. Ask your human resources department if you can work out a more flexible schedule at work, if needed. You can also look into the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows you to take unpaid time off work without losing your job. Your employer may also have an employee assistance program, which may also offer counseling, along with health and wellness programs.

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