Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many people were encouraged to smoke cigarettes to relieve tension or stay alert. At the time, we were unaware of the dangers of smoking and the challenges of quitting. Consequently, many families are now tending to aging parents who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
According to the World Health Organization, COPD is on track to become the third leading cause of death by 2020 and it is on the rise. In 2002, it was the fifth leading cause of death. COPD is most commonly caused by smoking, but this respiratory ailment can also be inherited or caused by breathing in dust, chemicals or silica.
Caregiving and COPD
Providing elder care for someone who suffers from COPD can be physically and emotionally challenging, especially if smoking is the cause.
“Something really unique in those caring for someone with COPD is that many times there is a feeling of resentment because the person smoked,” said Jane Martin, a respirator therapist and the Associate Director of Education for the COPD Foundation.
The Importance of a Diagnosis
Proper diagnosis is important. Coughing—particularly a “productive” cough in the morning—can be a sign of COPD. A recurring cough should also not be ignored. Shortness of breath—one of the most telltale signs of COPD—can be a sign of either COPD or Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). If a loved one is experiencing either of these symptoms, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible so that their unique needs can be addressed.
“You cannot assume a shortness of breath is COPD,” said Ms. Martin. “Once you get tests done, you know what you are dealing with.”
In the case of CHF, the symptoms will vary depending on whether the left or right side of the heart is affected. When the right side of the heart loses the ability to efficiently pump blood, the blood backs up into other areas of the body, including the lungs. The left side of the heart receives highly oxygenated blood and pumps it out to the rest of the body, so when it begins to fail the body is not getting enough oxygen.
COPD can present as chronic bronchitis, a long-term cough with mucus, or Emphysema, destruction of the lungs over time. Most people with COPD have a combination of both conditions, making it hard to breathe. As breathing becomes more difficult, a previously active person might become more sedentary.
“When you have trouble breathing, getting up and going to the bathroom can be hard, so you’re not going for a walk,” said Ms. Martin. “You might notice the person is sitting in a hunched position, maybe propped up on a table—that is a classic COPD position.”
Increased demands on the caregiver can cause anger and frustration. “It’s extremely common and really unfortunate,” said Ms. Martin. “It’s hard enough to care for someone who is ill and debilitated, let alone be angry at them in that situation. We encourage people to understand why their loved one may have started smoking and how it was extremely difficult to quit,” she said.
A person living with COPD may tire when getting dressed or bathing, lose the ability to concentrate and put strain on their heart because their lungs are not processing enough oxygen which will cause swollen feet, ankles and legs.
There is no cure for COPD, but there are treatments available to help people live with the illness. Many people may require continuous oxygen. It is recommended that caregivers encourage people with COPD rest frequently, move slowly and use deep breathing techniques.