Heart disease is the leading cause of death for adults in the USA. Coronary artery disease (also known as arteriosclerosis) is the most common type.
CAD is caused by accumulation in the coronary arteries of fatty deposits called plaques. This results in narrowing within the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart.
Typically CAD progresses over many years and may go undetected until a crisis occurs. Symptoms can include angina (usually brought on by physical exertion or emotional stress), shortness of breath and, if a coronary artery becomes completely blocked, a heart attack.
A diagnosis of heart disease is unsettling at best, and oftentimes frightening. It launches the diagnosed person and their loved ones into a new world of medical information, jargon and medical procedures. At least initially, consultations, tests and treatments may take center stage in their life. And the possibility of a heart attack and the need for major surgery is always lurking in the shadows.
If someone close to you has been diagnosed with CAD, here are some ways to be supportive.
- Understand that your loved one may initially be in denial about the severity of their health condition. This is a natural part of the grieving process when faced with a significant life change that’s involuntary and anxiety-provoking. Allow them plenty of time to adjust to their diagnosis and recommended lifestyle changes. Ask how they wish to be treated and keep communication lines open.
- Learn as much as possible about the disease and its management and educate family and friends. The local chapter of the American Heart Association is a good source of information, or go online to www.heart.org.
- Focus on controllable risk factors. Commit to making lifestyle changes together, keeping in mind it takes about 30 days to develop a new habit. Taking some control will help you both feel less vulnerable.
- Encourage your loved one to find an outlet for expressing their thoughts and feelings – perhaps talking with a friend, keeping a journal or joining a support group. And follow this advice yourself.
- If your loved one continually feels sad, angry, overwhelmed or unmotivated, arrange an appointment with their primary physician and accompany them. They may have a clinical depression, which is treatable.
Practical Tips for Daily Living
- Accompany your loved one to medical appointments. In addition to being a supportive presence, you can take notes. You may also have questions that didn’t occur to your loved one.
- Assist your loved one in following the prescribed treatment plan, which may include medication, a smoking cessation program, blood pressure monitoring, diet changes, exercise, rest, stress management techniques and regular checkups. You might, for example, buy a dosette (compartmentalized pill box) to make it easier to manage their medications, and collect and experiment with heart-healthy recipes.
- Assist your loved one in keeping an up-to-date medication list, including a copy for their wallet. Encourage them to consider crisis options such as medical alert jewelry and, if they live alone, a personal emergency response system for summoning help.
- Assist in setting up a record-keeping system to organize their health information. Ready-made binders with customized tabs can be found in book stores.
- If your loved one has a fast-paced lifestyle, encourage them to re-evaluate their priorities, streamline activities and make time to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures. It’s also a good idea to set aside quiet time each day, to nurture their spirituality and help keep them grounded.
- If you’re concerned about the impact of certain household chores on your loved one’s health, consult with their doctor. Arrange help for high-exertion tasks such as moving furniture.
- Cultivate a healthy sense of humor by reading the comics, watching a TV sitcom now and then or renting funny movies together.
- Find something enjoyable to do together, such as volunteering or engaging in a hobby. Revive a former pastime or try something new.
- Refrain from frequent lifestyle reminders that your loved one may perceive as nagging. Also refrain from admonishing them for unhealthy behaviors. You can’t force your loved one to make lifestyle changes and trying to do so will only create conflict. Express concerns gently and ask if, and how, you can be of help. It’s important to avoid judgment. Let them know you’re concerned about their health because you want to enjoy their company as long as possible. One of the best things you can do is set a good example of healthy living.
- Remind your loved one that even modest lifestyle changes can make a difference. Support them in taking small steps and building on their success.
- Keep in mind that however unwelcome it may be, the diagnosis of heart disease presents opportunities for a healthier lifestyle and for personal growth. Ultimately it can lead to a more fulfilling life for your loved one and, by extension, for you.