Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is a common illness, especially in older adults.
COPD in seniors doesn’t just affect their breathing, it can interfere with their ability to get around, socialize, and do their daily activities. A new diagnosis of COPD can be scary, but there are treatments available.
Here’s what you should know if your senior parent has been diagnosed with COPD.
What is COPD?
A build-up of irritation and inflammation in the lung tissue over time can cause COPD. As a result, the airways and air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs become damaged and less elastic. They can’t exchange oxygen the way they used to.
Common symptoms of COPD in seniors include:
Trouble breathing (especially with exercise)
Coughing up mucus
Frequent lung infections
COPD frequently co-occurs with similar lung conditions called chronic obstructive bronchitis and emphysema. That is to say, one or more of these conditions can occur at the same time.
Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of COPD in seniors. However, there are some other causes, including:
Exposure to secondhand smoke
Environmental exposures like air pollution and wildfires
Occupational exposure to chemical fumes, burning fuels, or heavy dust
Frequent use of cooking gas or fires without proper ventilation
A genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
Is COPD common in older adults?
COPD in seniors is pretty common, especially if your parent is a smoker or former smoker.
Medical researchers estimate that between 11% and 18% of adults aged 65 years or older are living with COPD. However, this is likely an underestimate. Many people live with mild COPD without getting diagnosed.
COPD progresses slowly but often begins to show symptoms in older adults in the winter months.
One of the most common early signs of COPD in seniors is shortness of breath during everyday activities like dressing or showering. Unfortunately, many older adults brush this off as a sign of aging or poor fitness.
It’s possible for people to do many of their daily activities even when they are losing lung function. As a result, it’s easy to brush off early symptoms. But the earlier your parent gets treatment and makes needed lifestyle changes, the better their chances of managing COPD.
If your parent experiences shortness of breath, encourage them to talk to their healthcare provider. Other common symptoms of COPD include:
A chronic cough
Feeling easily fatigued
Coughing up mucus
Chest tightness or wheezing
Loss of appetite
Seniors with COPD can have stable symptoms for long periods of time. However, it’s common to experience symptom flare-ups (exacerbations) from time to time. Common triggers are infections, exposure to smoke, or air pollution.
During these flare-ups, your parent may have a much harder time breathing. They should see their healthcare provider immediately when this happens. Their provider will give your parent medicine to treat these symptoms. If they are severe, your parent may have to be admitted to the hospital.
Will COPD go away?
COPD is a chronic health condition. It gets worse over time and as your parent ages without treatment. Fortunately, while there is no cure, there are medications and lifestyle changes that can help slow the progression and keep your parent active.
How well your parent does will depend on how well they follow the changes recommended by their doctor, especially quitting smoking. Also, how well your parent‘s other health conditions are controlled will also play a role.
Managing COPD symptoms
Treating COPD in seniors focuses on controlling symptoms, improving their quality of life, and preventing flare-ups. Consequently, this helps seniors to preserve their activity levels and avoid hospitalizations.
The primary methods for managing COPD in seniors are medications, lifestyle changes, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation.
There are many different types of medications used to treat COPD in seniors. These can come as pills or as inhalers. If symptoms are severe and your parent goes to the hospital, they may also get medicine through an IV in their vein.
Some types of inhalers are taken every day to prevent symptoms, while others are only used when your parent is having trouble breathing. These medicines work by preventing the smooth muscle in the airways from constricting.
Your parent’s doctor might also prescribe steroids to help bring down the inflammation in the lungs.
If your parent has a flare-up due to a lung infection, their provider might also prescribe antibiotics.
Your parent’s healthcare provider will likely suggest some lifestyle changes to help them manage their COPD. However, change at any age can be hard. Here are some ways that you can support those changes:
Help your parent avoid smoking or secondhand smoke. Limit time outside when air quality is poor.
Encourage them to be active regularly. This will help your parent’s endurance.
Help your parent stay hydrated. This keeps the mucus in the airways thinner.
Encourage them to stay up-to-date on vaccinations to prevent illness.
Prompt them to wash their hands frequently and avoid people who are sick.
Encourage your parent to reduce stress and see their doctor if they feel depressed or anxious.
Help arrange transportation so your parent can see their healthcare provider regularly.
Encourage them to let their provider know if their symptoms are getting worse.
If your parent’s oxygen levels get too low, their healthcare provider may prescribe supplemental oxygen. A face mask or a small tube that sits under the nose called a cannula delivers extra oxygen to help your parent breathe better.
Some people only need this extra oxygen when they’re active or when they’re sleeping. Other people use it all the time. Oxygen therapy can help your parent to be more active at home or in the community.
There are several types of oxygen therapy devices available. Many are portable and lightweight. These can help seniors with COPD live longer and feel more comfortable in their daily routines.
Healthcare providers may order pulmonary rehabilitation for all stages of COPD. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a special combination of therapies designed to help people with lung disorders improve their physical and mental state. What’s included depends on your parent’s individual needs, but exercise training, education, and coaching on changing behaviors are common.
Home health and COPD in seniors
Home health nurses can help seniors manage medical conditions like COPD at home. This could include managing medications, monitoring health status, getting used to new medical equipment, and education.
If your parent was recently diagnosed with COPD or has had an exacerbation, home healthcare with Parentis Health could help your parent in their recovery and learning about their diagnosis. Contact us today and see how we can help your parent stay healthier at home.