How Can COPD Caregivers Help?

By Jennifer Nelson

Caregivers for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) face challenges helping their loved ones to better health and quality of life. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, an estimated 25.5 million Americans struggle to balance working with caring for a relative age 50 or older. Caregivers can provide the best oversight by taking proper care of their own needs, educating themselves about COPD, and keeping up with the latest information.

Here are some facts about COPD for caregivers:

1. Exercise is a good thing. Since shortness of breath and fatigue can be scary symptoms for COPD sufferers, they may withdraw from physical activity. To encourage them to keep it up within their limits, suggest they walk to get the newspaper or mail or tackle small physical activities they are capable of. How about a walk around the block or at the mall together, or other pleasurable activities that combine physical exercise with socialization? “Getting patients with COPD back to a functional quality of life is absolutely doable,” said Dr. Linda Nici of the American Thoracic Society’s Board of Directors, in

2. Air quality is important. Steer COPD sufferers away from environmental irritants such as pesticide sprays and cleaning products with strong odors. Stay indoors when pollution or pollen is high and never let COPD patients become exposed to cigarette smoke at home or away.

3. Understand the difference between a serious flare-up and typical symptoms.Telltale symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, cough and phlegm. An exacerbation or flare-up typically is a worsening of any combination of those symptoms beyond their day-to-day variation. There are also early warning signs of a flare-up that may include increase in phlegm, fever, pain in chest, headache, confusion, insomnia, dizziness and ankle swelling—symptoms that aren’t usually part of sufferers’ daily symptoms. If you are caring for someone who has a flare-up, notify the doctor immediately and begin a predetermined action plan, which may include administering an increased dose of medication and/or adding other short-acting medications to open the airways.

4. Tackle food issues accordingly. Proper nutrition can help reduce carbon dioxide levels and improve breathing, so eating well is important. However, COPD sufferers may have trouble eating because of coughing spasms. Encourage them to recognize if certain foods increase symptoms and avoid them. Make sure they get healthy meals they enjoy and they eat when their energy is highest—usually in the morning. Also:

  • Serve frequent small meals to prevent breathlessness
  • Make sure they eat slowly to avoid swallowing air
  • Limit salt, which can lead to water retention and difficulty breathing; and
  • Make certain they wear a nasal cannula during meals if continuous oxygen is prescribed.

5. Help them avoid triggers. Caregivers should help COPD sufferers avoid the typical triggers that exacerbate their specific symptoms, such as strong cleaners, cigarette smoke, pollen, poor air quality, mold, dust mites and other allergens in the home.