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Caring for a loved one with a heart condition?

Caring for a loved one with a heart condition? Image

By Joe Haller, RN, The University of Vermont Health Network – Home Health & Hospice

As a caregiver, the prospect of helping someone with a heart condition may feel overwhelming. Here are some tips to make this important role easier for you and the cardiac patient in your care.

Learn about the disease

Caring for someone with cardiac issues and understanding their diagnosis and prognosis can be confusing. Informing yourself lays the foundation you need to be an effective source of support. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Be direct when asking medical specialists for clarification. Ask for definitions of acronyms, medical terms, tests, etc., and write these down. Specialists use these terms every day and may not realize they’re unfamiliar to you. Don’t be afraid to ask if something isn’t clear — you’re a key part of the care team!
  • Find information online from reliable organizations such as the American Heart Association or Mayo Clinic, or request phone numbers and printed materials from your loved one’s medical provider.
  • Request information from the specialist, home health nurses or rehabilitative staff.

Learn about recovery

Speak with the care team to learn about the recovery process and expected outcomes. Depending on your loved one’s ability to keep track of next steps, you may need to:

  • Clarify diet or fluid restrictions; request a dietician referral if needed.
  • Clarify activity and exercise restrictions and the goals and timelines recommended for each.
  • Request physical or occupational therapy referrals if an exercise program is recommended or your loved one is struggling with everyday self-care activities or movement.
  • Clarify with the specialist how to recognize complications, when to call the specialist or primary care provider, and when it’s appropriate to visit the emergency room.
  • Create a calendar of follow-up appointments and help identify the transportation needed for these appointments. Ask for a social work referral if there are transportation barriers getting to appointments.
  • Help your loved one contact smoking cessation programs like 802 Quits, a Vermont Department of Health program, if they are considering quitting.

Find your place

Define your own role on the care team. Be realistic with your loved one about your own abilities and capacity to help. Maintain open, honest and kind communication, and be sure to understand your loved one’s goals and needs. You may consider the following to make your role more focused:

  • Assign a point person for communicating with family and friends.
  • Educate family, friends, specialists/doctors and support clinicians on your role.
    • Delegate tasks. Remember that others may want to be involved, but also want to respect your role. Consider delegating things like:
    • Your loved one’s personal care: Is help needed? Other family or friends may be able to assist, or your loved one may qualify for an insurance-reimbursed home health program. You might also consider a private-pay program. Visit our website to learn more.
    • Tasks that need to be done regularly, such as laundry, shopping and cleaning.
    • Help with pet care such as walking the dog, vet visits and cleaning cat litter.
    • Help with seasonal tasks such as driveway, walk and ramp clearing, as well as lawn maintenance.

Rely on resources

Reach out to other supportive resources that likely have programs, staff, volunteers or even donated equipment that will make your loved one’s recovery easier and your role easier, too. Think of “asking for assistance” as part of your role. The following organizations can assist with finding solutions to problems you and your loved one may encounter:

Practice self-care

Lastly, don’t forget to take care of your own health! As an essential part of your loved one’s care team, taking care of yourself is important, too.

  • Eat a healthy diet. Snacking between tasks in a busy caregiver’s schedule may be the only way at times to maintain energy, so have healthy snacks available. Reduce unhealthy snacks in the home so that making a healthy choice is more likely!
  • Keep your own doctor’s appointments.
  • Watch out for depression and seek help immediately if you feel anxious or depressed.
  • Have a person to talk with to share frustrations.
  • Set boundaries and be ready to ask for help.
  • Most importantly, continue to pursue your own personal goals. Schedule respite time and take regular daily/weekly breaks.

Taking on the role of the caregiver for a cardiac patient can be challenging. Juggling the various needs, tasks and appointments with your own may seem like a lot to manage. However, keeping these tips in mind, you’ll soon get into a rhythm and be able to celebrate the successes and comfort you bring to your loved one.

Editor’s note: Joe Haller, RN, is a complex care coordinator with the Longitudinal Care team at The University of Vermont Health Network – Home Health & Hospice in Colchester. He has been a staff nurse with the organization for seven years. To learn more, reach Joe at or visit us at