Build a Supportive Community for Older Family Members with Heart Disease

By James M. Rippe

For most people, growing older comes with the growing occurrence of health problems, including heart disease. Growing older for many people also means that their network of social support is smaller; many people are less able to get about and depend increasingly on family members.

At present, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, approximately 44 million Americans (age 18 and over) provide unpaid assistance to older individuals and adults with disabilities who still live at home and not in a care facility.

If you are providing care for an older family member or friend, caregiving has an impact not only on the health of those you are caring for, but also on your health. If you are an aging adult, then you need to think about the potential support you will need in the future and what the implications are for your children or younger relatives.

Whether you are a potential caregiver or person needing care, you should take steps to ensure the best outcomes for those you care about and for yourself. These are just a few tips:

  • Educate yourself. Knowing as much as you can about your parent’s or relative’s condition will enhance your ability to be supportive. Internet resources such as MedlinePlus.gov and mayoclinic.org provide reliable information on many conditions as well as links to other resources. If you are the older parent or relative needing care, share information that your physicians have provided.

    Although giving support may start with something simple like transportation to healthcare appointments, the need for younger family members’ support typically increases with time as a parent or relative gets older or possibly sicker. Over the long run, caregiving can pose stress and health risks for caregivers.

    So if you are younger, start learning about being a caregiver now; the Family Caregiver Alliance is an excellent place to start. If you are older, perhaps you have been a caregiver and know something of the demands or you too can learn more about caregiving. Knowing more can help everyone communicate.

  • Communicate and build a partnership. The best approach to supporting your aging parents is to talk honestly about what kind of support they need. You and your siblings should have this conversation with your parents while they are still functionally independent and before a crisis occurs.

    If you are an older adult or couple, initiate the conversation. Everyone needs to share as honestly as possible about what needs may arise and what each individual can provide. Be realistic and let your heads take charge, not your emotions or fears.

  • Get the paperwork done. If you are a parent or older relative, you owe it to your children or younger relatives to have a will. You also need a durable power of attorney for healthcare and a durable power of attorney for finances, in case you become mentally incapacitated.

    Be sure that the person(s) who have your powers of attorney have copies of the necessary documents and that all your children know the arrangements you have set up. If you are children of older parents who have not executed these documents, initiate a conversation with your parent(s) about getting this task done.

  • Support independence as far as possible. Most older adults want to be independent and to manage their own affairs and live on their own — not just until they can’t “manage” but right up to the end of life.

    As a caregiver, being supportive doesn’t mean taking command of someone else’s life; it means enabling them to do as much as possible for themselves. For a mentally sharp older adult who has physical limitations, that may mean helping primarily with activities that require functional fitness, such as transportation, grocery shopping, housecleaning, and/or assistance with cooking and personal care (or seeing that such assistance is available).

    For individuals with cognitive decline, supporting independence may mean a different kind of encouragement and help. If you are an older adult who wants to continue being independent, then the first step in showing that independence and family leadership is to do some of the planning I’ve just described.

  • Explore other sources of support. Many caregivers get worn out because they do not know what other sources of support are available or assume that such services are not affordable. Local, state, and national governments typically have agencies that provide information about services for seniors. The U.S. Administration on Aging is a good place to begin your search.