December 5th, 2012 at 10:00 am
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COPD can zap elders’ strength, endurance

by Dorian Martin

One of the hardest things I ever had to watch while caregiving was my once-vital mother desperately gasping for air as she struggled to do any minor physical activity. Toward the end of her life, this woman — who used to tote several bolts of fabric across our family store — couldn’t even shuffle her wheelchair down the nursing home hallway without struggling, even though she was using supplemental oxygen. The reason for her feeble physical state was chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

What is COPD, and who suffers from it?

The term COPD describes a variety of progressive lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and refractory (non-reversible) asthma, according to the COPD Foundation. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) report that more than 15 million adults may be living with this respiratory condition while millions more may be unaware that they have COPD. Individuals are more likely to have COPD if they are:

  1. Current or former smokers
  2. Between the ages of 65-74
  3. Non-Hispanic whites
  4. Women
  5. Unemployed, retired or unable to work
  6. Lacking a high school diploma
  7. Lower-income
  8. Divorced, widowed or separated
  9. Having a history of asthma

Mom, like many people, developed this disease because she was a long-time smoker. However, genetics, respiratory infections and air pollutants such as secondhand smoke, dust, gases and fumes can also trigger COPD. (In fact, I believe Mom’s COPD significantly worsened when my parents lived in an area that was a major allergy zone and was near a main interstate highway.) Symptoms of COPD include a chronic cough and phlegm production, shortness of breath when performing normal physical activities, being unable to take a deep breath, and wheezing.

What can you do about COPD?

Seniors and caregivers can take steps to help prevent early development of COPD. First, everyone should avoid tobacco products as well as second-hand tobacco smoke. Additionally, be vigilant about removing air pollutants from the home or workplace.

If a loved one begins to experience difficulty breathing, it’s important to see a doctor because early detection of COPD may make it possible to change the condition’s course and progression. The CDC points out that physicians can perform a simple test to measure pulmonary function and detect COPD.

If a senior is diagnosed with COPD and the disease progresses, the doctor may prescribe medications to treat the coughing and wheezing. The National Jewish Health website offers breathing techniques such as pursed lip or coordinated breathing that may benefit a person who is struggling for breath. If someone with COPD develops a respiratory infection, see a doctor immediately since these infections can potentially be life-threatening. As COPD progresses, it can lead to low blood oxygen levels, so a person in a more advanced stage may need supplemental oxygen.

Another blog post mentions the use of palliative care to ease the suffering of persons with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or COPD. While palliative care is often associated with hospice care, this specialized medical care can be helpful for those with serious illnesses at many phases of life.

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