How To Care for Someone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month. IBS is a common condition characterized by gastrointestinal problems like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Anyone can develop IBS, but it's especially common in seniors. In fact, 10-20% of people aged 65 and older have the disorder.
If you care for an elderly loved one with IBS, there are some challenges to consider. In this article, we provide tips and tricks to reduce accidents, encourage independence, and improve your senior's quality of life.
What causes IBS?
No one's entirely sure what causes IBS, but several factors may contribute, including:
Sometimes, IBS is the result of a viral infection. Other times, it's triggered by an overgrowth of certain bacteria.
Some evidence suggests a link between childhood stress and IBS. For example, trauma or abuse in early life may contribute to gastrointestinal problems.
Nervous system abnormalities
Your nervous system and digestive system are directly intertwined. If there's faulty communication between your stomach and brain, it increases the risk of digestive problems, like cramping and constipation.
Changes in the gut microbiome
The human gut contains more than 300 types of bacteria. Changes in the gut microbiome, caused by stress, nutrition, or underlying medical issues, may trigger side effects associated with IBS.
How can a family caregiver help someone with IBS?
There are several things that family caregivers can do to help a loved one with IBS. Below, we've listed five recommendations provided by:
Kate Harrison, an IBS sufferer, and business expert who serves as the HR Director of Car Donation Centers.
Nancy Chung, MD, a gastroenterologist based in New York City.
1) Get an official diagnosis
If you care for an elderly loved one and they experience digestive problems, like bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, or gas, it's vital to identify the underlying cause. "IBS can be difficult to diagnose, and some symptoms crossover with other illnesses," Harrison said. "For women, especially, I would recommend this, as many symptoms correlate with those of endometriosis and misdiagnosis can occur as a result, which can then lead to incorrect treatment."
Chung concurs, adding "if someone is having persistent GI symptoms, then the best thing to do is to see a physician for a formal evaluation."
2) Identify things that make your loved one’s symptoms worse
After your loved one receives an official diagnosis, you can take steps to prevent flare-ups and reduce accidents. The easiest way to do that is by identifying things that make their symptoms worse.
"Certain foods can trigger some symptoms associated with IBS," said Chung. "However, this can be very individualized from person to person. In general, though, very spicy or fatty foods are problematic for many people."
Harrison agrees, "for me, personally certain foods are a trigger. Therefore, it's essential that I adhere to specific dietary requirements. I’m fortunate that my loved ones are supportive of this. I have found that by following a gluten and caffeine-free diet I can reduce my symptoms."
Stress might also make IBS worse. As a result, "decreasing environmental and life stressors is helpful for many patients," said Chung.
The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) recommends relaxation techniques like abdominal breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Click here to learn more about relaxation techniques for IBS.
3) Plan ahead
If your senior has irritable bowel syndrome, they may avoid going out in public due to fear of an accident or worries about finding a bathroom. These fears can be alleviated with a little bit of research.
"Plan ahead," Harrison said. "Check out restroom availability as well as any local support systems that may be in place. In the UK, for instance, it's possible to purchase a Radar Key which will provide access to the majority of restrooms in the country."
Even if you're just running errands, there are smartphone apps that can help you plan toilet trips. Check out Flush Toilet Finder and Map by clicking here.
4) Expect accidents to happen
Healthy lifestyle changes can reduce symptoms associated with IBS, but there's no way to cure the condition completely. Therefore, it's crucial to set expectations. Understand that accidents will happen. Instead of trying to prevent them, pack a travel bag that includes the following items:
A clean change of clothes
If your senior has special dietary restrictions, make sure to pack a few snacks as well. It's good to be prepared just in case.
5) Ask for help
Being a family caregiver is incredibly rewarding, but it can also drain your time and energy. If your care recipient has other health problems, like dementia or inflammatory bowel disease, it can make things even more challenging.
Remember, you don't have to do everything on your own. There are plenty of groups out there where you can get support, share your feelings, and commiserate with others.
"Be patient, with your loved one, and yourself," said Harrison. "Remember that if you can learn to reduce and manage the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome it will be worth it.
Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.