When Should You Help Your Loved One Manage Multiple Chronic Conditions?
How to know when to step in and what to do when illnesses worsen
(Editor’s note: This is the 16th in the Next Avenue “When Should You…” series on aging milestones for parents or loved ones. With our partners at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, we address common caregiving concerns.)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, collector and keeper of the nation’s health care data, says three in four Americans over the age of 65 are living with one or more chronic medical conditions.
If the loved one in your care is among that number, you may have found yourself wondering when, and how, to step in to help.
For those living on their own, the most common chronic condition is heart disease, a cluster of related conditions that includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chest pain, stroke and other symptoms. The next most common ones are arthritis and diabetes.
Needing More Assistance for Chronic Conditions
Those in the early stage of a chronic condition can often manage their own care without assistance. The same is true for those dealing with just one or two conditions.
However, if your loved one is further along in the progression of a condition or is living with multiple chronic conditions — conditions that require them to see different specialists, take multiple medications and adhere to complex and sometimes conflicting treatment regimens — they may need help.
In many cases, that need for help is triggered by a crisis.
“They may have been covering up the fact that they are no longer able to manage things,” explains Joan Wood, a nurse case manager at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, “so family members only learn they need help after they have been hospitalized.
“And,” she adds, “the fact that things have gone on so long, means the caregiver is often stepping in to provide a higher level of care and oversight than they are ready for, or capable of providing.”
Stepping in means getting up to speed — fast. To do that:
- Educate yourself: Get as much information as you can on each individual disease and condition; if, and how, conditions impact and/or relate to each other; the current treatment plan your loved one is following and the medications he or she is taking for each condition.
“Start with the basics,” advises Wood, “and then get specific information from their health care team.”
- Get information from local sources: While you can get useful information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it may be better to go to local chapters of condition-specific organizations, such as the American Heart Association, Arthritis Foundation, Diabetes Association or Alzheimer’s Association.
“They don’t just have the condition-specific information you’re looking for, they know what, and where, the local resources that can help with care are, too,” says Wood.
- Become your loved one’s advocate. Advocating doesn’t just mean you need to be the second set of eyes and ears at a loved one’s medical appointment or during a rehab session. It means finding and working with a single pharmacist so you can manage and coordinate medications and organizing health and medical records, too.
“You don’t have to use a notebook or binder,” says Wood, “but you do have to make sure that medical records and related paperwork are organized and in one place so you can get information quickly.”
- Become a part of the care team. When you step in to manage a loved one’s chronic conditions, most of the time you’re joining an already existing team: the person himself or herself; the person's primary care physician and specialists; insurance providers; friends and neighbors; places of worship or clubs and social service agencies.
“Take advantage of their collective knowledge and expertise,” advises Wood.
- Respect your loved one’s abilities. “Find out how they used to do things,” says Wood, “and then use that to build on their strengths and help them set goals that get them actively involved in their own care.”
- Keep an eye out for depression. “They are dealing with the losses and grief that come with living with multiple chronic conditions,” says Wood, “but depression should be evaluated, and where possible, treated.”
And finally, know when to let professionals step in.
“When you are caring for someone with multiple medical conditions, you are juggling a lot of balls, and many aren’t medically related,” explains Wood, “so in a lot of situations, bringing in a home aide, getting home-delivered meals or having someone do chores can help with the juggling.”
is an over 110-year old Cleveland-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to support caregivers and empower all people to age well through research, consumer-responsive services and client advocacy. Visit us at benrose.org