How to support someone with heart disease

Find out how other families and whānau support their loved ones after a diagnosis of heart attack, atrial fibrillation, or other heart disease.

It can be a real shock to have someone in your family or whānau diagnosed with heart disease, or admitted to hospital for a heart problem. You may feel scared, anxious or even guilty or angry. Many of these feelings are normal reactions. Family and whānau are often more anxious than the person with the heart problem.

Julie Birch talks about supporting her husband after his heart attack

Communication is very important for keeping families close and well-connected. Many couples and families go through life without saying how much they care for each other. Some couples and families say that a heart attack brought them closer because they realised how important they are to each other.

It helps for everyone to talk honestly and freely about what they’re feeling. No one, including children, should be excluded from the conversation. You may not be aware that children can often blame themselves when their parents become unwell, so it is important to explain to them what has happened and why it has happened.

Having open and honest conversations may not only reduce episodes of stress; it may also encourage the closeness and emotional support that people need following a health scare.

There are healthy ways to deal with emotions of anxiety, guilt and anger. You may like to talk through your concerns with someone you trust.

It's really important for you to take time to recognise your emotional state and take steps to manage your own health. This is for the benefit of your loved one as well.

Take some time to build a support network for yourself so that it isn't just you looking after your loved one. Your friends and family/whānau may welcome the chance to help out.

Helen Thompson-Carter talks about her husband's concern for her after her heart attack

It's common to feel scared and anxious about your loved one's health, particularly following heart surgery or an unexpected heart event like a heart attack

One of the most common complaints from people who have had a heart attack is that their family hover over them too closely, or treat them as frail.

Some people describe an abrupt change in their relationship as they take on the role of a nurse rather than a partner. In the longer-term, once anxiety levels even out, people usually resume their normal relationships. 

There is no substitute for the value of someone managing their own health, but there are times when we could all use a helping hand.

We often underestimate the value of 'just being there' - this is valuable emotional support for someone coming to terms with a new heart diagnosis or having had a heart event like a heart attack.

One of the times when people can feel most vulnerable is when they are talking to their doctor and other health professionals. It can be intimidating to talk to an expert about a heart condition you've never heard about before.

  • You may like to volunteer to go along with your loved one to their health appointments. Some families have found this really useful; as when they compare notes afterwards, they realise that they have different understandings of what the doctor was saying. 
  • Don't hesitate to ask questions, even if you're afraid they are stupid questions. You and your partner are going to live the other 364 days of the year without a doctor looking after you. Any health appointments are a chance for you and your partner to ask whatever you need to know so you are confident about moving forward with life.  

Keith talks about how his wife and his healthcare team supported him

Ask your doctor and nurse about what to expect as 'normal' and any warning signs to watch out for. Depending on your loved one's condition, there may be different warning signs. Many symptoms may be able to be managed at home, but it's really important to know when you need to call for help.

Your loved one may be given a personalised 'action plan' to explain how to manage symptoms and when you need to call for help.

Explore our standard action plans for angina, heart attack and heart failure

To learn more about what you can do to support your family/whānau and to hear more video stories, explore our video library.

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