There aren’t too many phrases that evoke more dread and fear than “open-heart surgery.” After all, the patient is literally having their chest opened and their heart operated on, which is not something you usually want to happen. In many ways, the main difference between surgery and violence is the intent.
This is especially scary when the surgery is happening to an aging loved one. Weaker bodies and immune systems make the procedure seem particularly dangerous. The fear we have about the operation is matched only by the fear we have of what happens next and apprehension about our ability to really help in the recovery process.
We’ve talked to hundreds of people who trusted the doctors to perform cardiac surgery on their aging loved ones but didn’t trust themselves to help afterward. They were uncertain about their roles, their ability to aid in post-op recovery, and the time they could commit to doing so. And all of this is perfectly normal.
That’s why planning is so important. If you, your family, and a support group are prepared, you can be instrumental in helping your loved one recover. Caring for older adults after cardiac surgery takes patience, preparation, and love. It takes conquering your fears and being ready to help your loved one recover in relative comfort, peace, and independence.
The Good News About Cardiac Surgery and Your Fears
Like we said, it is very normal to be nervous about a loved one having cardiac surgery, especially when they are older. But the good news is that there have been incredible advances in heart surgery. A 2004 study showed that for adults 85 or older, there is only a 3.2% (risk-adjusted) mortality rate during surgery. For all patients 75 and older, the survival rate is 98%, with a post-op life expectancy rate similar to people who haven’t had heart problems.
Even better has been the rise of non-invasive procedures that don’t require opening the patient up. Many valve surgeries only require a two-day hospital stay, with little pain afterward.
While that is astonishing and wonderful, that isn’t the case for all surgeries. And even with non-invasive procedures, there is still post-op recovery time. And that’s where you, as a caregiver, come in. More precisely, that’s where preparation comes in.
Tips for Caring for Your Aging Loved One After Cardiac Surgery
Invasive or not, there will be things you should be prepared for as the caregiver of an older adult undergoing cardiac surgery. Here are some tips for doing that:
- Have schedules prepared in advance: Recovery could be six days or six months. It probably can’t fall on one person. So have a discussion with your family about who can help when. Talk about preparing meals, respecting each other’s time, and possibly finding home care help if need be. If this is the first time your family will act as a caregiver for an aging loved one, it could be stressful and guilt-inducing (which is normal). Making sure that you have a plan for who can do what and when saves ad hoc shifting around and can prevent fights and stress. Avoiding caregiver burnout is crucial to the recovery process, especially because your loved one doesn’t want to feel guilty or burdensome.
- Understand the procedure: Understanding exactly what is happening is important for your own mental health. The mind can play a lot of tricks when it has to fill in information. Going in, know what the procedure is, so you can do your own research and find out your own information on what is needed in terms of recovery. You will get a lot of that from the hospital, but you can fill in the blanks with actual knowledge instead of fear. Preparation equals confidence.
- Understand any special instructions: Sometimes, cardiac surgery patients will need to walk with braces or crutches as their circulation comes back. That’s something you may not have known (I didn’t at first!). Asking doctors for special instructions means you won’t be surprised by things that are, frankly, impossible for a non-expert to consider.
- Be aware of discharge instructions: Discharge means the patient is in your hands (except for checkups). Hospitals are required to give detailed instructions on everything from what to watch for to how to deal with the incision to dietary requirements to prescriptions. Many hospitals only give discharge instructions to specific people, who may or may not be the primary caregiver. So make sure whoever does it takes detailed notes and asks the right questions. Have a plan for how to disseminate the information.
- Know what to watch for (such as pain and nausea): Pain and nausea are two of the most frequent symptoms after surgery. Understand what levels are normal and what aren’t, and how you can handle them. It doesn’t do any good to say “this is fine” when it isn’t, but it also doesn’t do any good to panic at what is normal. But that’s advice for the whole endeavor.
- Be ready for homecoming: Do you have the braces or crutches? Have you cleaned a path to make it easy to get from one room to the other? Is the bed out on the first floor to avoid stairs? Everyone’s path is different, but knowing what needs to be done and doing it in advance prevents last-minute panic and scrambling.
- Be calm: This is the most important step. Be calm beforehand. Of course, you are nervous, but try to relax those nerves with knowledge and don’t panic. Be aware of the worst-case scenario, but don’t let it dominate your mind. And don’t be terrified about what comes next. A calm, level head will get you through most things.
It is normal to be scared about having an aging loved one undergo heart surgery, and it’s just as normal to be apprehensive about what you can do to help. If you aren’t trained as a doctor or caregiver, you might question your abilities. That’s fine to do so. But don’t let those normal fears prevent you from helping out.
Ask questions. Find information in books or from reputable online sources. Talk to other people who have gone through this. If you are prepared, have the logistics planned out and remain calm. You can be the rock your older loved one needs. These days, the most challenging parts of surgery are what comes next. You might not have a scalpel, but you can be armed with love and knowledge.
At Institute on Aging, we’re here to offer older adults and their caregivers resources to get through many of life’s challenges, including recovery from heart surgery. Connect with us today to learn how we help.