What Can I Actually Do for My Loved One After a Heart Attack?

After your loved one suffers a heart attack, you may be left wondering what you can actually do for them that will help you both.

Helpful Highlights

  • Your emotional support following your loved one's heart attack is extremely important.

  • Partner with them to adhere to their appointments, medications, and recommendations.

  • Let them recover and become independent again.

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Every person who experiences a heart attack is different, and therefore may have differing recovery experiences and different care requirements; however, there are some universal things that you can do for your loved one following a heart attack, regardless of who they are or what type of heart attack they had.

Emotional support

Next to following specialist instructions, the best thing you can do for your loved one after a heart attack is to provide emotional support and monitor their mental and emotional well-being. 1 in 5 persons will experience depression soon after a heart attack. Depression causes withdrawal from healthcare providers and reluctance to adhere to necessary appointments, medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes.

Likewise, depression can lead to withdrawal from family, and cause problems with sleep, eating, and mood. This leads to poor recovery and outcomes for your loved one, putting them at risk for another heart attack, and increasing their risk of heart failure or other serious complications.

Even if your loved one does not experience depression, they may experience fear and guilt over having "let" a heart attack happen. Even if these feelings are unfounded, they need to be voiced, discussed, and resolved. Encourage your loved one to look forward, not backward, and transform the fear and guilt into motivation for positive health behaviors in the future.

Specialist instructions

Instructions provided after discharge from the hospital are customized for your loved one by the cardiologist and cardiac care team. It's imperative that these detailed recovery instructions are carefully followed. They include follow-up appointments, as well as guidance regarding medications, diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes - immediately (in the first few weeks) and long-term (over the remainder of life).

Follow-up appointments are extremely important. Your loved one attending these appointments, as scheduled, is essential for their recovery and ongoing well-being. You should accompany them to these appointments to ensure that your loved one understands everything that is said and encourage them to ask questions. (For help with questions see Helpful content: Heart Attack, Questions for the Provider.)

It is especially important that your loved one complete cardiac rehabilitation. Cardiac rehab decreases the five-year risk of death following a heart attack by 35%.

Monitoring

Keep track of your loved one's progress, and especially look for warning signs that warrant contacting their cardiologist: shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations, or high blood pressure. If your loved one had an invasive procedure in response to their heart attack, check the surgical site daily.

Also, help your loved one with daily activities (bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning), but don't exclude them from those activities. It's important to gauge how much they are able to accomplish on a daily basis because, as recovery progresses, they should be able to do more and more until they can return to normal activities and be as independent as possible.

As always, follow the cardiologist's instructions on any restrictions.

Healthy lifestyle

Encouraging your loved one to adopt healthy lifestyle changes means more than merely telling them what to do. It requires partnering with them and leading by example. Here are just some examples:

  • Don't smoke before or during your time with them, especially if they are smokers themselves and must now quit.

  • Don't bring them fast food meals, as they must reduce fat and sodium in their diet (and there is no such thing as "healthy" fast food).

  • Encourage daily physical activity. Take your loved one on short, frequent walks and incorporate exercises like seated yoga or work with resistance bands, and build toward longer, more intense activity (paying attention to the guidelines recommended by their cardiologist).

  • Uncover sources of stress and work together to resolve them. No matter how small they may seem to you, they may be very important to your loved one.

  • With their permission and cooperation, enroll them in heart-healthy cooking classes, fitness programs, and educational seminars (whether in-person or online). These are both medically helpful and - just as importantly - socially engaging.

While this major life event will throw you together in many ways, a faster path to increased happiness and interest is to make sure you're doing things separately, as well.

Recovery time from a heart attack varies and is dependent on many factors, though is usually anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months (cardiac rehab may extend beyond 3 months).

RESOURCES

American Heart Association (AHA)

CDC

Cleveland Clinic

Heart Foundation - Heart Attack After Care

Heart Foundation - First Month of Recovery

National Health Service (NHS, UK)

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH)

No content in this app, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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