Having a heart or circulatory condition may mean you can’t do all the things you used to, but you don’t have to miss out on socialising. Claire Shaw gets tips from an expert and hears how two people adapted their social life to suit their condition.
“People feel sorry for you for not being able to drink,” says Karen Stritch, 56, who was diagnosed with heart failure following a heart attack at the age of 33.
In 2017, her condition worsened. “A big part of my social life was going to the pub and having a drink with friends. When I decided to stop drinking because of my condition, the people I used to go out with would say: “Are you going to be boring now? Are you not going to have fun?'”
Issues like this affect many people when they develop a health problem. Although everyone copes differently, a serious health condition can lead to people making changes to their lives or taking up new hobbies. For Karen, the change to her social life knocked her confidence at first. “My friends’ reactions made me think, ‘Am I not an interesting person without drinking?’ But this is a lifestyle choice – it gives my heart no benefit to drink. I also didn’t want to go to busy places where people push and shove because of my pacemaker, so I ended up moving away from friends who wanted to go out and drink. I still wanted to do things but I felt alone. So I sat there and thought, ‘What can I do?’ I did isolate myself for a while,” she says.
Do things you enjoy
Karen likes going out for meals, to the cinema and theatre. She had heard about Meetup groups (that anyone can create or join to meet people in their area who share similar interests) but there weren’t any close by and she didn’t want to travel long distances. So, in December 2017, she set up a group in her local area of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
She says: “In winter, you have to think about what you can do because cold air can affect your health. You also worry about letting people down because you may not feel up to going out. But the good thing about the group is that you can just dip in and out”. Today, the group has over 160 members. “I just organise one event for up to 10 people a week as I don’t want to exhaust myself. We go out to the cinema, the theatre and for nice dinners, and I’ve also started a book club. It gets me out with like-minded people and it’s a nice environment. It’s really important to talk about other things than my heart, as it gets draining. The group allows me to feel that I’m useful and that I can enjoy life. One of the best medicines is to laugh – it’s great to hear people’s funny stories.”
Karen says you have to accept what you’re not able to do. “I could focus on dying, but I choose to concentrate on living,” she says. “You have to change your mindset and focus on what you can do. I’m having more fun than ever and enjoying life at a pace that works for me.”
Don’t restrict yourself
Dr Victoria Miller, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, says it’s important to return to everyday activities as soon as possible. “When people have a diagnosis or an illness, one of the things that happens is, after a period of time, people can start to feel quite low in mood as realisation sets in,” she says. “And with low mood, people can become socially anxious.”
“One of the symptoms is wanting to avoid things because it’s a basic instinct to protect yourself and stay indoors. You may not want to answer questions or explain things to people.” On top of that, people may feel concerned that something will happen to them when they are out of the house, Dr Miller says. But it’s important to try not to let these feelings restrict your life. “One of the things that helps is to try to socialise as much as you did before your illness, but recognise the changes that you might have to put in place. It’s about setting realistic goals. You might not be able to do much initially, but things will change.”
Dr Miller points out that mental health can affect your physical health – so it’s good for both mind and body to try to lead a full life and do things that you enjoy. Going to cardiac rehab can be a good start. As well as the exercise element, it also helps people to feel normal as they are around others who’ve had similar experiences.
Get out of the house
For Philip Martlew, 63, the social element of cardiac rehab was helpful. “I went twice a week and it got me out the house,” he says.
After being diagnosed with chronic pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium, the layer that surrounds and protects the heart) eight years ago, Philip had to give up his job as a senior executive at a bank he’d worked in for 28 years. “It got to the point where it was unsustainable,” he says. “I’d lost a lot of weight – I went from 18 stone to 11 stone. It was horrendous. People at work of course noticed. “The job involved travelling around the country, and I couldn’t do it any more – that completely changed my life. As my condition got worse, I was stuck at home. I hadn’t planned to stop working this early.”
Taking up a paper round gave Philip a routine and got him out of the house. “I did it for two years and was told I was the best paper round person they’d ever had! I’m quite dedicated to any task I do,” he laughs. “But I had to stop due to the winter weather and my health.”
He often experiences chest pain, usually at rest, which means it is difficult to plan anything. “I arrange to meet friends,” he says, “and then my chest pain comes on and I have to cancel. It’s also had an impact on my wife, as we can’t go out as much and do the things we’d like to do.”
Philip spoke to his GP and was able to change his medication so that he could avoid having regular blood tests, which can also be socially disruptive.
To get out of the house, he walks his dog every day and meets people for lunch or goes to the cinema. He is also doing a degree in classical studies with the Open University, which has been understanding and made allowances for his condition.“Getting to tutorials is a challenge – I’ve had to cancel some of them due to my health. I enjoy going because of the social element, and I’ve found doing the degree gives me a sense of achievement, which you lose when you stop working.”
Along with his friends, Philip has set up a Facebook group, UK Pericarditis, which offers support to others with the condition, as well as their friends and family. “It’s a forum to meet people and discuss the challenges.” Philip says he finds Facebook groups a useful way to chat to people and keep up his social life: “I’ve met other people with my condition who I would never have met otherwise.”
Published on the BHF website