How to Provide Care After Bariatric Surgery

Caregiver Support Tips Following Weight Loss Surgery

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Do you have a loved one who will be undergoing weight loss surgery? Life after bariatric surgery can be challenging physically, socially, and emotionally. Your support will be invaluable. Use this guide to learn the best ways to provide care and encouragement after a bariatric procedure. 

Are You Ready to Be a Caregiver?

If your spouse or partner is considering bariatric surgery, chances are good that they will look to you for support.

But sometimes a husband or a wife is not the best caregiver.

"One of the most important things in providing care for a patient who has had bariatric surgery is simply to be available," says Dr. Richard Lindquist, a board-certified obesity and family medicine physician. Dr. Lindquist is a former member of the Board of Directors at the Obesity Medicine Association and coordinated non-surgical and surgical medical services for patients at Swedish Weight Loss Services in Seattle. He says that "while patients usually do not need intensive help, being available to help when needed is key." 

If you are considering providing care, evaluate your schedule way before surgery to make sure that you can give your loved one the time that is needed. "Pre-planning is important to determine the need to ask another more distant family member, make arrangements with friends, or look into professional nursing or health aid care," says Dr. Lindquist.

He also says that the caregiver should be someone who is ready to be part of a team. "Together, the bariatric surgery patient, caregiver, and members of the professional team work together as a unit to strive for the best possible outcome for the patient." He says that the best outcomes require a long term, comprehensive team approach to provide a continuum of care.

Tips for the Caregiver: Before and After Bariatric Surgery

Before and after weight loss surgery, your involvement can make a big difference for the bariatric patient. These are some of the many ways that you can provide support:

  • Go to appointments and group meetings before surgery. Your role as a caregiver begins long before surgery takes place. "Involving the caregiver in the process as early as possible is very helpful," Dr. Lindquist says, "and virtually all bariatric surgery programs encourage caregiver involvement from the onset." He also explains that attending doctor visits with the patient is helpful so the caregiver can learn about surgical wound care, common post-operative issues, and how to be alert for potential problems. Many bariatric facilities also encourage patients and caregivers to attend support group meetings together before surgery. Meeting with others can help the patient to feel validated in their decision to undergo the bariatric process and can help give both the patient and the caregiver a better sense of what lies ahead.
  • Be present for immediate post-surgery care. During the period immediately after surgery, your loved one will need help with food preparation, possibly with dressing, and occasionally with self-care. Most patients take 1 to 2 weeks off from work after surgery, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. They say that in the early weeks back on the job, your loved one is likely to have low energy and may have to adjust to a part-time schedule. But after that initial period, says Dr.Lindquist, they may need help with house activities and shopping until healing has progressed and they can lift and drive, usually at about the 6-week point.
  • Support the pre- and post-weight loss surgery diet. In the weeks leading up to surgery, many bariatric physicians put their patients on a strict diet. After surgery, your loved one will also have to follow a regimented eating plan, first with liquid meals then with low-volume meals. Dr. Lindquist says that the caregiver doesn't have to follow the same food volume restrictions that the patient has to follow, but it is important that the caregiver understands and supports the changes. "The caregiver can greatly help both the patient’s and their own lifestyle and health by adopting quality dietary consumption habits, such as adequate protein and healthy fats, vegetables, and limited carbohydrates."
  • Understand and support the need for physical activity. Regular exercise is key to maintaining a healthy metabolism throughout the weight loss process. In fact, many patients can begin to move right away after the surgery is complete, according to ASMBS, by taking short gentle walks in the hospital. Once home, the caregiver can help support a healthy activity schedule by getting involved. Social support is a key factor that can help exercise newbies stick to a program. Go for evening walks, or do gentle stretches together that follow guidelines provided by the medical team.
  • Make and follow a structured daily plan. As a caregiver, developing and enforcing a daily plan that incorporates medical instructions can help the patient be successful in the weeks following surgery. Jill C. Williams, MS, CPT, is a post-operative obesity surgery success story and has provided guidance for others through the bariatric community at ObesityHelp.com and the Obesity Action Coalition. She says that after weight loss surgery the patient must come to terms with food addiction: "After my surgery, I could be melodramatic and act like a child, because all of my coping skills were based on how much food I could eat. It's important for the caregiver to understand that there is loss and anger when the drug of choice is removed." In her case, Jill's caregiver allowed her to vent for only for a structured amount of time (20 minutes), and then he guided her to move forward with the structured daily plan. "It was also helpful for my caregiver to remind me that this was my choice. It was something I wanted to do for a better life."

What Not to Do After Bariatric Surgery: Caregiver No-Nos

While you are likely to have the best of intentions during the time you care for a patient after surgery, sometimes a caregiver can do more harm than good. Williams offers advice about practices to avoid when helping your loved one recover:

  • Don't give in to food requests. Going off the diet, exercise, or therapy plan doesn't help, says Jill, especially during the first month or two. Don't provide access to foods that are not allowed—no matter how much your loved one begs or complains.
  • Don't join the pity party. "When you are grieving the loss of food, you don't need a companion," says Williams. "Someone has to assume the adult role. It is important to set boundaries about which complaints need tending to and which ones don't."
  • Don't become the therapist. After about 6 weeks, your caregiving role will probably end, says Williams. Other medical experts agree. But around that time, the patient may begin to experience changes to relationships. For many obese persons, social gatherings and relationships revolve around food. After surgery, those relationships must change for the patient to be successful in the long run. This shift can cause sadness and even depression. "Don't cross the line into therapist," says Williams. Your loved one can find support in a group or with a qualified counselor. If the caregiver is a spouse, then he or she needs to be clear about what they are and are not willing to do. For example, if the spouse doesn't have an obesity issue, he or she may not want to give up regular social functions that involve food. Couples therapy may be helpful, she says. "After weight loss surgery, everything that goes into making you a couple changes and it happens so fast." She says it can be beneficial to get professional help.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that it is important to care for yourself while caring for others. Have a backup plan so that you can take time away as needed for self care. And remember that you don't have to be the patient's only source of support. Set clear boundaries and encourage your loved one to find support groups online, in the area, or through a bariatric center. Your support and care can only take your loved one so far in the weight loss journey. Ultimately the path to health and wellness needs to be fully owned by an individual to be successful.

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