Can a heart attack cause a personality change? Our caregiving expert says yes—and gives tips on how to cope.
QUESTION: My mother-in-law has always been the most positive, active woman I know. She has been a wonderful role model to all of us. She mothered nine children, now productive adults with children of their own, lives in the house they all grew up in, tends to her garden, friends and life in general. A month ago, she suffered a massive heart attack. She survived, much to the doctor’s amazement, and is now home convalescing. The challenge for all of us who have taken on the role of caregiver is that she has undergone a dramatic personality change. This once positive, generous, helpful and loving person has become cynical, rude, negative and very difficult to be around. Her doctors told us she can’t be alone day or night for at least the next three months. With so many of us wanting to help, it has been easy to create a spreadsheet and allow everyone to select which shifts he or she would like to fill. Even the older grandchildren have signed up. We are all still in shock this has happened. Personally, I’m fearful her negative attitude will drive away some of the family members. She has also been told she needs to go back in the hospital in six months for yet another heart surgery. She has adamantly told all of us that she has no intention of going back to the hospital and that even though her doctors tell her it is mandatory she have this additional surgery, her response is, “I’ll take my chances.” Her actions are very painful to watch. What can we do to cope with her personality change and keep it from getting worse?—Caitlin
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ANSWER: There are a number of issues contained in your question and I will try to answer each one. It is not uncommon for heart attack sufferers to experience a personality change in the way your mother-in-law is reacting. A full-blown heart attack, like the one she experienced, is usually a life-altering event. It is not unusual for heart attack survivors to experience a wide range of emotions from depression and anxiety to sadness and feelings of loss. Visit www.healthtalkonline.org to read more about how others have handled this event in their lives and you will find your mother-in-law’s attitude is not unique. It is heartening to hear that all family members are signed up to help provide care. Perhaps a family meeting without your mother-in-law present would give each of you a chance to express your thoughts and ideas on how to provide the best care possible. Be sure to share how important patience is when caring for someone who has been through a traumatic event. It may be that your mother-in-law is simply tired at this point and can’t imagine going through a medical procedure as serious as heart surgery. My advice to you and your family is to take one day at a time. If your mother-in-law is up to some activity such as going to a movie or shopping, be sure to offer and include her in family activities whenever possible. If she is willing to listen, guide her through the healthy choices that will aid in healing. In the end, it is her decision as to what she chooses to do as far as medical procedures. It might be difficult, but it’s also imperative that someone walk her through end-of-life decision-making. With such a large family, it will make it easier on everyone in the future if her wishes are known, documented and, ultimately, honored.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.comor Amazon.com.