A decade ago, Edna Shattuck of Washington, D.C., began noticing that tasks she had no trouble doing before, like walking the dog and carrying groceries, left her breathless. When Shattuck, then in her late fifties, saw her doctor about her breathing problems, she was diagnosed with COPD
Without question, life as a COPD patient is at times challenging for Shattuck, as it is for many other seniors dealing with the chronic lung condition. Shattuck uses a number of medications, including inhalers and nebulizers, throughout the day to prevent her COPD symptoms from worsening. Though she can walk around her home, she sometimes has trouble with longer walks and needs to take frequent breaks. A mucusy cough, wheezing, and chest tightness make everyday activities like eating or exercising difficult.
Avrum Spira, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Boston Medical Center, says Shattuck's description of what it's like to have COPD is not uncommon.
"Those with moderate to severe forms of the disease can experience shortness of breath with routine daily activities like walking down the street or even moving from room to room within their house," he says. Realities for some COPD seniors include a chronic cough that produces phlegm every morning and the need for supplemental oxygen at home. Patients may have frequent exacerbations of COPD symptoms, during which coughing and sputum production will worsen, and they may feel short of breath even at rest, he adds.
What's It Like to Have COPD?
COPD patients may need to make significant accommodations in response to the condition's progression, according to Daniel Dilling, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine:
•You may need to wear supplemental oxygen all night and use your first respiratory medication, either a handheld inhaler or a nebulizer treatment, as soon as you wake up.
•You may get winded by simply having a conversation, and a typical day can include anywhere from two to 10 inhaler treatments.
•You may need to wear oxygen while getting dressed and even while showering. Even then you may experience considerable shortness of breath.
•Getting around the house may require a long oxygen tube that snakes through the rooms.
•Going out may require packing one or two portable oxygen tanks.
Managing COPD Symptoms
Despite the challenges of living with COPD, Shattuck is quick to point out that she still has good quality of life, and she's determined to maintain a positive attitude.
"One of the most important things I've learned since I was diagnosed with COPD is to recognize the changes in my condition while not letting them take over my life," she says. "I've faced up to the fact that it's called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for a reason. It's mine for the rest of my life, and yes, it probably will get worse, but that doesn't mean I have to curl up in a corner and wither away. I've learned to pace myself so that I can continue to join friends for a meal, view an exhibit at a museum, and, most important, walk in the park with my dog."