New Beginnings: Caring for a Family Member after an Amputation

Whether your loved one has undergone an amputation as a result of a combat injury or as the result of peripheral vascular disease, your family member will need not only medical care and physical support, but also psychological and emotional support as he or she learns to live life without a limb. While caring for your family member is rewarding, it is also draining. A home health personal care assist can make this time of transition easier for you and your loved one.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the rate of amputations have dropped among people who have diabetes, approximately 50,000 people lose a limb each year due to disease or trauma. Besides the peripheral vascular disease that accompanies diabetes, other disease and conditions that put a person at risk for amputation include severe infections and end stage renal failure. Other reasons for amputation are traumatic injuries, such as burns, automobile accidents, work-related injuries, and combat wounds. While amputees who have not incurred any other physical trauma spend about a week in the hospital after doctors remove their limb, the recovery and rehabilitation process can take months. This puts the amputee’s family members in the role as the primary caregiver, which can be both physically and emotionally draining. Many family members, as well as amputees, find the services of a home health personal care assistant essential when the amputee first comes home.

The First Weeks Home: Transitioning to Recovery  

Before your family member leaves the hospital, the patient’s medical team usually meets with family members to develop a plan for aftercare services. During the first weeks home, the medical professionals will focus on wound care and pain management, while your family and loved ones are adjusting to your “new normal.”

The way in which the patient interacts with others, his or her rate of recovery and rehabilitation, and deals with the amputation emotionally depends on these factors:

  • The Cause of the Amputation:  Research suggests that when the amputation is a complication of a disease, people know they are going to lose a limb and have time to prepare themselves for it. If the person loses an arm, leg, or finger due to trauma, the individual has no way to prepare psychologically, which leaves them in a state of emotional shock. Since the patient has to deal with both the physical trauma of the accident and the psychological trauma of losing a limb, their recovery tends to be more difficult compared to those who knew they were going to have an amputation.
  • The Patient’s Physical Condition before the Amputation: People who are young and physically fit tend to have an easier time physically recovering from the amputation than older people, those with diabetes or other medical conditions, or patients who were not physically fit.
  • The Degree of Disability and Pain Caused by the Amputation: If a person loses a finger on their non-dominant hand, they are going to have an easier time coping with the amputation both physically and emotionally than an individual who has lost both legs. When a person experiences a great deal of pain, the patient will have more difficulty with rehabilitation, which may limit the progress the person makes towards adapting to the loss of the limb.
  • The Amount of Social Support and the Reaction of Caregivers: When an amputee has friends and family supporting him or her during recovery and rehabilitation, the person is less likely to fall into deep depression than those who do not have a great deal of social support. Additionally, when caregivers share their confidence that the amputee will be able to overcome the challenges he or she faces, as opposed to treating the person as a helpless victim, the patient will have likely have a more positive attitude than an individual that does not have a robust and affirming support system.

As a family member caring for an amputee, you face not only the challenge of ensuring your loved ones physical and emotional needs are met, but you also need to ensure you are taking care of yourself physically and emotionally. The Amputee Coalition provides caregivers with both information and support about how to care for themselves, as well as their loved one, during the months of recovery and rehabilitation following an amputation.

The Months of Rehabilitation: The Pathway to Independence  

Once the amputee’s stump has healed, the process of rehabilitation begins with the fitting of a prosthesis, which not only serves as cosmetic function, but also is integral to the patient regaining as much independence as possible. Along with the prosthesis comes months of intensive physical therapy that most amputees find challenging and exhausting, especially if they have to cope with phantom limb pain. Phantom limb pain, refers to the amputee’s perceptions that the missing limb is still there and is causing his or her a significant of pain.

During this time, caregivers need to watch their loved one for signs of depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is more likely to occur in patients whose amputation was the result of traumatic injury. Combat veterans who have has to have a limb amputated are 55 to 85 percent more likely to develop PTSD than other amputees that have a 25 to 30 percent risk of developing PTSD.  Combat veterans also run a higher risk of experiencing a Major Depressive Episode than other amputees. If a caregiver has concerns about their family member’s psychological well-being, it is important to raise the concern to the patient’s medical team so that they can assess the symptoms and develop appropriate treatment interventions.

Supporting the Caregiver and the Amputee: The Role of a PCA

As members of the amputee’s recovery and rehabilitation team, home health personal care assistants provide caregivers respite and support amputees in achieving as much independence as possible. During the first weeks of recovery, the PCA helps the amputee by reminding him or her to care for the wound and assisting the patient with activities of daily living. A personal care assistant also assists caregivers in transporting the patient to medical appointments and by supporting patients in the rehabilitation process. To learn more about how a personal care assistant can support you and your loved one during this challenging time, contact a Minnesota home health care agency.