Published on September 18, 2020 by AliveCor India

You may know someone in your family or have someone in your household who has experienced a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke, or has been diagnosed with a chronic heart disorder like heart failure or arrhythmia. These sudden events or new diagnoses can also be life-altering for you as a loved one, family member, and caregiver. It can be hard to watch your loved one reeling from the consequences of their diagnosis or condition, as they face the reality of a completely new lifestyle. They may even need round-the-clock support to help manage their condition, especially following a surgery.

Most often, given the familial and societal structure in India, providing support to a person with heart disease inevitably rests with the family members. If you are a family member helping manage your loved one’s heart condition, then you are playing the role of a “caregiver” — a rewarding yet demanding job.

With the myriad responsibilities associated with being a caregiver, it is easy to overlook your own health and wellbeing. The constant worrying and the 24/7 nature of the job can lead to chronic stress, which in turn can affect your own health. As a caregiver, it is vital to look after your own health and wellbeing while taking care of your loved one with heart disease.

Caregivers — What do they do?****

If you are a caregiver for a family member or loved one with heart disease, the job description can be quite long. Most caregivers’ roles include the following:

  • Helping with daily activities like bathing and dressing
  • Ensuring that prescription medications are taken on time
  • Providing much-needed emotional and mental support to help the family member or loved one cope with their new diagnosis or after-effects of an adverse cardiac event
  • Assisting with lifestyle changes needed for the heart disease patient like preparing heart-healthy meals and encouraging appropriate physical activity
  • Booking routine medical check-up appointments for your family member or loved one and accompanying them to the hospital or clinic

Caregiving can incur personal, professional and social costs. Many people may choose to uproot their lives and move back with their family member who recently received a chronic heart disease diagnosis or who experienced a heart attack or stroke. A family member with a new heart disease diagnosis also poses new challenges to the other household members. In addition to having to provide constant heart-related care, other family members in the household have to also juggle several responsibilities like full-time work, childcare, and household-related errands that go into maintaining a home. Hence, caregiving for a family member or loved one with heart disease can be a physically and emotionally taxing job.

The toll of caregiving on caregivers****

“Caregiver stress” is common among people looking after a loved one with heart disease and can manifest as anxiety, depression, stomach pains, fatigue, headaches, and sleep disruption. For example, one study from Hong Kong showed that primary informal caregivers were more likely to report worse health, anxiety, depression, and weight loss compared to non-caregivers. In a vicious cycle, chronic stress linked with caregiving can increase the risk of heart diseases in caregivers. This chronic stress can also lead to you taking up unhealthy behaviours like binge-eating, smoking, and increased alcohol consumption — all of which can sabotage your heart health and overall wellbeing.

Another study found that one in five caregivers described their health as fair or poor, and nearly one in five believed that their health worsened as a result of providing care, particularly in those who have been providing care for five or more years.

While we acknowledge that caregiving is an essential role, it is important to also address the potential physical, behavioural and mental impacts of unceasing caregiving for a loved one with heart disease. If you are a caregiver, it is likely that you already have a lot on your plate. Taking care of yourself may not even feature on the to-do list for the day. But to ensure that you can properly manage your loved one’s heart disease without compromising on your own health, here are a few tips you can follow:

  • Pay attention to your body’s signals — Take time out to give your body what it needs to recharge. This could be a healthy meal, exercise, rest, or even medical attention.
  • Watch out for the signs of stress — Every caregiver’s signs of stress may be different, but the general ones are sleeping difficulties and disturbances, tiredness, weight fluctuations, poor concentration, and alterations in mood. Look out for triggers of these stress manifestations, and make time to engage in stress-relieving activities.
  • Maintain your social connections — Although caregiving for a family member with heart disease may be a 24/7 job, it is important to stay in touch with other family members and loved ones, even if it is through online communication. This can have positive impacts on your mental health.
  • Make time for your own interests and activities — Whether it is knitting, meditating, or sitting by the window with chai and pakoras, ensure you set aside some time for therapeutic activities that help uplift your mood.
  • Move around more — This could be in the form of exercise or breaking your routine to get some fresh air. If possible, you can request another household member to look after your loved one with heart disease while you take your well-deserved break.
  • Accept help — List out some ways that others can help you, and allow them to choose their activity. For instance, a child, or friend, may offer to take the person you care for on a walk. A friend or family member may also be able to run an errand, such as grocery shopping or cooking. Sharing responsibilities frees up more time for you to take care of yourself.

Self-care is important when caring for loved ones 

Remember, as a caregiver, you are not alone. And while a lot of things may not be in your control, you can control the impact that caregiving responsibilities have on you. It is important to keep in mind that a loved one with heart disease also cares about the wellbeing of the person looking after them. Utilizing technological tools can also make caregiving responsibilities less stressful. For example, AliveCor’s Kardia Mobile is a portable, smartphone-connected ECG device that can conveniently record your loved one’s ECG in real time. The ECG recording can then be electronically transmitted to your loved one’s cardiologist. This will help you stay on top of managing your loved one’s heart condition and reduce the need for routine in-hospital ECGs.

So, if you are a caregiver, it is essential to take time for yourself to avoid caregiver burnout and ensure that you are also leading a healthy lifestyle.

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