Living at Home With COPD

November Is National COPD Awareness Month

Senior couple; man is using supplemental oxygen

The older we get, the higher our risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung disorders that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The lungs of people with COPD become partially blocked, making it hard to breathe and get enough oxygen. Symptoms include a chronic cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and excessive phlegm production. COPD raises the risk of a number of other conditions, including heart problems, osteoporosis and memory loss.

Today more than 15 million people in the U.S. are living with COPD, and more than 140,000 people die from the condition each year. The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that COPD is the third-leading cause of death in this country.

What causes COPD?

Smoking is the top risk factor for COPD. According to the American College of Chest Physicians, 80 percent of COPD deaths can be attributed to smoking, or to secondhand smoke from spending a lot of time in places where other people are smoking. Other causes include air pollution and occupational exposure to hazardous substances. In a small number of cases, genetic factors are involved. COPD worsens as a person grows older due to increased inflammation and age-related changes to the lungs.

How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD is diagnosed with a simple breathing test called a spirometry test. The doctor also might recommend a chest x-ray or CT scan, as well as an arterial blood gas test to measure the oxygen level in the blood.

Experts say only slightly more than half of older adults with COPD have been diagnosed. Seniors often ignore the symptoms, thinking "I’m just getting older." This is a mistake: Treatment is available, and the sooner the better. Anyone who is experiencing persistent coughing, excess mucus production and shortness of breath should be tested for COPD. Testing also can rule out or detect other conditions that might be causing the symptoms, such as heart disease or asthma. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reminds both patients and healthcare providers that the symptoms of asthma and COPD can be very similar — but the treatments are different, so it's important to have the right diagnosis.

Can COPD be cured?

Damage to the lungs caused by COPD cannot be reversed, but certain treatments and lifestyle changes can slow the progression of the disease and help patients feel better. Treatments include:

A smoking cessation program. This is certainly the first step in preventing the progression of COPD. Patients who find it difficult to quit should ask their doctor about a quit smoking plan, which might include counseling and medications. People trying to quit smoking should avoid being around other people who are smoking — as should anyone with COPD.

Medications. Several types of medicines can improve breathing. Bronchodilators help open the airways; these are usually taken using an inhaler. Steroids also may be prescribed. People with COPD are at higher risk of the complications of pneumonia and seasonal flu, so they are usually advised to get the pneumococcal vaccine, as well as their annual flu shot.

Oxygen therapy. People with low blood oxygen levels can feel better and be more active by using supplemental oxygen, delivered through nasal prongs or a mask. There are several types of supplemental oxygen, and it's important to use it safely and correctly.

Pulmonary rehabilitation. These treatment programs teach people with COPD to manage their symptoms, retain as much independence as possible, and improve overall quality of life. Rehab might include an exercise program, disease management training, counseling and a diet plan. Interdisciplinary rehab teams include respiratory therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, and social workers or other counselors. A recent study from King's College London found that even elders who are very frail can benefit greatly from a pulmonary rehab program.

Surgery. Surgical treatments, including a lung transplant, may benefit some people with COPD; these procedures usually are a last resort.

Home care can help

COPD patients will have a personalized treatment plan to follow. Seniors with COPD usually want to stay at home rather than move to a care facility, but they often need support to do so. Family can help; indeed, say experts, managing COPD is a family affair!

Professional support at home also is available. In-home skilled nursing services can be provided. And for people with COPD, even the most basic tasks, such as cleaning the house, getting dressed and going to the store, can be difficult and exhausting. Nonmedical in-home care services can be of great help when senior clients are dealing with muscle weakness, fatigue and confusion.

Here are some of the services in-home caregivers can provide to help clients manage their home and their health:

Caregiver helps senior client dress

Keep the house clean and in good order. Dust and other substances in a dirty house can irritate the lungs. And people with COPD are at higher risk of falling, so the caregiver will be careful to remove hazards and clutter.

Prepare nutritious meals. Good nutrition is important for people with COPD, but it can be hard for them to prepare and eat the healthy foods they need. The caregiver can go to the grocery store and prepare meals according to the doctor's instructions. For example, people with COPD are often advised to eat smaller, more frequent meals.

Provide transportation and companionship. Depression is a common side effect of COPD, and patients may find themselves feeling lonely and isolated at home. Having a caregiver, both at home and out in the community, can provide a real mood boost, even encouraging clients to stick to their quit smoking plan.

Hygiene care. Looking our best is another mood booster. Caregivers can assist with bathing, dressing, grooming and other personal care tasks that may be too much for COPD patients with a low energy level.

Accompany clients to healthcare appointments. The caregiver can take the client to doctor appointments, pulmonary rehab sessions, and other recommended health support. The caregiver also can pick up prescriptions or take the client to the pharmacy, and provide medication reminders.

Provide supervision for exercise. The doctor or rehab specialist will most likely recommend a home exercise routine. Having a caregiver on hand provides an extra measure of encouragement and confidence.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you have any questions about your COPD, consult your doctor.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.