As described by the adage “aging is not for sissies,” growing older is accompanied by many challenges. The aging process is defined by the slowing of many biological functions, which can severely impact quality of life. Receiving a diagnosis of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease on top of that can lead to a mix of emotions: fear, worry, confusion, and uncertainty. It’s likely that your parent is also dealing with co-occurring health issues like high blood pressure or insulin resistance, which can further complicate things. In many cases, aging adults require regular help. The responsibility often falls on adult children, especially with the rising costs of eldercare in the United States.
How can you help your elderly parents navigate the natural aging process while also controlling fatty liver disease? Here we equip you with everything you need to know about caring for aging parents, addressing physical and emotional needs, and taking care of yourself.
Understanding Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Having a grasp of what it means to be diagnosed with fatty liver disease helps provide a clearer picture of your parent’s needs. In this article, we focus primarily on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver disease, also called hepatic steatosis, is the accumulation of fat in the liver. At early stages, fatty liver disease may have no symptoms and may simply serve as a signal that diet and lifestyle changes are needed. Fatty liver disease usually responds readily to diet and lifestyle changes and can be reversed.
Complications arise when fatty liver disease progresses to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), fibrosis, and cirrhosis. These progressive states of fatty liver disease lead to inflammation, scarring, and tissue damage that compromises liver function. Older adults are at a higher risk of disease progression, so intervening early is key.
Fatty liver disease goes hand-in-hand with metabolic syndrome, which encompasses high cholesterol, insulin resistance, obesity, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Fatty liver disease is sometimes grouped together with metabolic syndrome.
For more information, check out this guide to fatty liver disease stages and progression.
Many of these ideas may also apply to caring for family members and loved ones with other chronic diseases. At the same time, it’s likely that not every idea will apply to your situation. Each family deals with a unique set of challenges depending on many factors. As you go through suggestions, simply hold on to those may be helpful for your specific needs.
What to Ask When Attending Doctor’s Appointments
Doctor’s appointments can sometimes be confusing, especially when adapting to the unfamiliar territory that comes with a new diagnosis. Many times, you leave wishing that you had asked certain questions. If you’ve decided to attend doctor’s appointments with your mom or dad, it can be helpful to have a set of questions to ask to serve as a guide.
Here are questions you may want to ask to help clarify your parent’s health status and situation.
1. What medications should my parents take to help with this condition?
2. What lifestyle changes are crucial for supporting recovery from fatty liver disease?
3. How often should we make appointments to monitor liver function?
4. What stage of fatty liver disease does my parent have?
Support Healthy Diet Changes for Your Parent
Having a healthy diet is one of the keys to helping slow the aging process while also controlling both fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome. Though genetic tendencies may play a role, fatty liver disease is largely influenced by environmental factors like diet and exercise. As mentioned above, immediately responding to a fatty liver diagnosis with healthy foods and regular exercise is key to preventing progression and even reversing the disease.
You can find detailed information about the fatty liver disease diet plan here, but below is a short version of foods your parents should and shouldn’t be eating with fatty liver disease. (link)
Dietary Guidelines for Fatty Liver Disease
- Eat lots of fruits and veggies. Examples of liver-friendly fruits include blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, watermelon, grapes, oranges, mango, kiwi, and watermelon. Liver-friendly veggies include kale, spinach, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, peppers, and celery.
- Eat lots of whole grains. Healthy whole grains to incorporate into your diet include brown rice, quinoa, oats, as well as some whole-grain breads and whole-grain pasta.
- Eat lots of nuts, seeds, and beans. This includes pecans, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, black beans, chickpeas, and lentils.
- Eat fatty fish. Fatty fish includes salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna. The fats in these fish are omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation.
- Eat small portions of nonfat dairy. Nonfat dairy like yogurt and cheese can provide healthy proteins with all essential amino acids.
- Eat lean meat. Chicken breast, turkey breast, and occasional lean cut of steak are good meat options for healthy protein.
Add Supplements When Needed
Older adults often face difficulty consuming adequate amounts of food to meet caloric, protein, and nutrient needs. In many cases, protein supplements may improve strength and muscle mass. Essential amino acid supplements may provide the benefits of protein without compromising kidney function or overworking the digestive system. Vitamin-enriched foods and beverages may help fill in any nutrient gaps.
Consult a health care provider or registered dietician to evaluate whether your parents are getting the nutrients they need and to ensure that supplements are right for your parent’s health condition.
Foods to Avoid If You Have Fatty Liver Disease
- Fried foods: French fries, fried chicken, and doughnuts are examples of fried foods to avoid.
- Baked goods: This includes cakes, cookies, and other pastries.
- Refined carbohydrates: Refined carbs encompass foods like white pasta, white bread, and white rice.
- Added sugar: Check labels for added sugar, since added sugar can be found in nearly all packaged items and even some breads and pasta.
- Fatty meat and dairy: The fat found in animal fat is saturated fat, which should be avoided at much as possible. Steer clear of fatty cuts of steak, dark meat chicken, dark meat turkey, and processed meats like lunchmeat and salami. Avoid full-fat milk, butter, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt.
Support Regular Physical Activity
- Take walks. If your parent isn’t used to physical activity, simply taking a walk around the neighborhood is a great place to start. Slowly ramp up the walking time and speed as your parents feels more fit.
- Visit a local park. Going to a park close by puts a nice spin on the normal walk around the neighborhood.
- Try out a gym class or yoga class. A gym class is a good way to learn new workout techniques. Ask your local gym if there are workout classes tailored to aging adults or adults with certain health conditions. Additionally, committing to attending a class once a week helps maintain a routine.
- Go on a hike. Getting out in nature can function both as a stress-reliever and as a good form of aerobic exercise. Walking uphill challenges the leg muscles and gets the heart pumping, while the outdoor setting provides fresh air and nice scenery.
- Dance. In some cases, simply putting on good music and doing a little dancing is all you need to get a good workout in. Plus, if your parent is particularly averse to venturing out of the house, doing an at-home workout is the way to go.
- Incorporate strength-training. Aging is often accompanied by muscle wasting, which can make other illnesses like fatty liver disease worse. Start with gentle weights and slowly increase the weight or the number of repetitions of a weighted exercise. Consult a personal trainer or fitness professional for guidance on how to best incorporate strength training into a regular fitness routine.
Make a Care Plan
Having an organized schedule for appointments with health care providers, grocery shopping lists, meal plans, and family activities is crucial for successfully managing aging and chronic conditions like fatty liver disease. Staying organized and having a game plan can help relieve stress for both you and your parents.
Here are examples of things to add to your planner and calendar:
- Medication times, dosages, and refill dates
- Exercise plans
- Family activities
- Phone numbers of doctors and friends
- Grocery list
- Meal schedule
Recruit Extra Help and Support
The National Council on Aging provides information regarding long-term care options, home care, and other care services for aging adults. It also provides economic support for low-income elderly adults to help meet all care needs. (1)
Keep Your Relationship as Normal as Possible
If you’re mom or dad has been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, this doesn’t mean everything has to change. Keep up the routines and traditions you love while adapting them to new circumstances. You can try making new ones as well!
For example, if you always have a big Sunday dinner as a family, you can still hold on to that tradition even if the foods change. Simply swap out refined carbohydrates for whole grains, choose a low-fat meat, and add lots of veggie-based sides.
At family gatherings for the holidays, make walking or hiking an integral part of the family tradition.
Instead of going out to restaurants, try preparing more meals at home as a family. When preparing family meals, spend quality time with one another by cooking together. Experiment with different recipes and write down your family favorites.
How to Comfort Someone with a Fatty Liver Disease Diagnosis
When supporting your aging parent, one piece of the puzzle is the physical support, and the other piece of the puzzle is emotional support. Sometimes, providing emotional support can feel like an even more daunting task than providing physical support.
- Validate negative feelings. Fear, anxiety, and worry are a part of aging and receiving a new diagnosis. If your parent expresses these feelings, validating these feelings can be relieving and comforting.
- Emphasize the positive. Simply bringing to light any positive occurrence can help shift mindset and provide some relief from worry.
- When in doubt, try to provide a distraction. Maybe watching a funny show, listening to music, or looking at old pictures can provide temporary relief from worry.
- Most importantly, don’t worry if you don’t have the right words. You are not a counselor, and you are not expected to be able to shift someone’s mindset. Your physical presence and help signify your love and support. If you feel like your parents may benefit from additional emotional support, a licensed counselor or therapist can help your parents come to terms with certain situations and diagnoses.
Self-Care Is Critical
Caregiving in any capacity results in enormous energy expenditures. On top of meeting the demands of your work, school, children, partner, and any other responsibilities you have, caregiving can become a burden. Caregiver burnout is a very real phenomenon, which is why it is critical to replenish your resources and address your personal care needs.
Regardless of whether you have help or you’re the sole primary caregiver, giving yourself a break is necessary to prevent exhaustion and breakdown. Remember, you can only give to others if you give to yourself first. Here are a few tips for making sure your own emotional needs are met, to avoid caregiver burnout.
1. Find Caregiver Support Groups
If you’re struggling with a caring for an aging parent with fatty liver disease, others near you are likely experiencing the same struggles. The Family Caregiver Alliance is an excellent resource for connecting caregivers and providing supportive resources, events, and information. (2)
Finding ways to release stress is crucial for maintaining your own health. Each person’s preferred stress management techniques are unique to his or her preferences. Some people may experience stress release from vigorous exercise, while others may get relief from calmer practices like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.
3. Connect with Trusted Family and Friends
Spending time with your family and friends is crucial for maintaining your health. Fold time with friends into your schedule, even if it’s just for coffee. Catching up with friends and opening up to them about your struggles can help you reduce your mental burden.
4. Keep Up Your Hobbies
Making time for the activities you love helps you maintain your own life and identity. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid giving up your Tuesday night book club or Sunday evening tennis match with friends. Keeping up regular hobbies helps maintain a sense of normalcy and routine.
5. Share Responsibility
You can’t do everything yourself – no one can – and admitting that is not a failure. Rather, it is a success that will lead to more favorable outcomes for you and your parents. Trying to take on too much responsibility just leads to an eventual mental breakdown that isn’t good for you, or anyone else. Remember that it’s ok to reach out for help when you need it.
Here are a few examples of ways you can reach out for help:
- Contact loved ones. If you have siblings, cousins, or other family members, let them know when you need extra support, either physically, emotionally, or financially. Work together as a team to make a schedule that gives each of you time to rest.
- Contact friends. If your parent has close friends or neighbors, reach out to them to see if they would be willing to bring your parents their mail, go on a regular walk, or even bring over a meal. Friends are there to help.
- Reach out to your contacts from support groups. Connecting with support group members can be immensely helpful when you’re feeling spread too thin and need direction for next steps. Ask for advice and recommendations for care strategies and professional caregivers. Many others have faced similar challenges when supporting aging parents.
Aging, especially when compounded by fatty liver disease, is a difficult process. Having a care plan that provides structure and support to your aging parents while also prioritizing your own needs helps everyone adjust to a new normal as smoothly as possible. Caregiving is a tough task. Do your best, be kind to yourself, and always ask for help when needed. Care plans and strategies ensure that your aging parents get the best support during the aging process and the best care to control fatty liver disease.