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Trouble Breathing? Respiratory Care for Seniors

Shortness of breath may be considered typical among the elderly but should never be overlooked. Respiratory health is vital at any age but especially important for seniors.

As a senior or as a caretaker, be informed with the facts and stay alert to the signs of respiratory disease. Report any symptoms to your health care providers.


It’s never too late to make lifestyle changes. Prevention of pulmonary diseases and disorders starts with taking good care of the heart and lungs. Not smoking, taking medications as prescribed, exercising, eating right to maintain optimal weight, and receiving vaccines in a timely fashion work together to maintain overall well-being.

In addition, poor air quality can be challenging for the healthiest of individuals. On those days, plan indoor activities that encourage movement and keep loneliness or boredom at bay.


Thinning bones can change the shape of a senior’s rib cage and lessen their ability to maintain open airways. Overweight seniors are more prone to respiratory problems as well as those who smoke. Even colds and allergies can cause difficulty in breathing.

Trouble breathing can also be a sign of more serious disorders and should be discussed with your health care provider. These symptoms may indicate medical conditions like pneumonia, heart failure, stroke, cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes pulmonary emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma.

If your loved one is experiencing a sudden, severe episode of shortness of breath, wheezing or chest pain or discomfort, emergency help may be necessary.


Just like the rest of the body, the lungs can build strength and stamina from regular exercise. Too often seniors avoid taking deep breaths due to body stiffness and muscle weakness. Continued shallow breathing ends up causing discomfort, fatigue and higher stress levels.

Try these senior breathing exercises twice a day, making them a daily habit. Use these easy-to-follow instructions.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing quickly slows the pace of respiration making each breath more effective.

  1. Sit comfortably in a calm, quiet room.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Breathe in through your nose, slowly counting to five until your lungs and stomach feel full.
  4. Hold your breath for a moment.
  5. Gently exhale, slowly counting to five, pulling in your stomach as you release the air.

The Big Release

This breathing exercise sends out air trapped inside the lung. If climbing stairs or lifting objects is a problem, try The Big Release.

  1. Sit comfortably.
  2. Take a deep breath through your nose until your lungs and stomach feel full.
  3. Quickly release your breath through your mouth in one big gasp.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

With aging, the diaphragm can become weaker, making it harder to inhale and exhale. Diaphragmatic breathing helps increase chest volume and reduce the number of breaths needed while performing an activity.

  1. Lie comfortably in a calm, quiet room.
  2. Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  3. Feel your ribs expand as you slowly breathe in and fill your lungs.
  4. Hold your breath for five to ten seconds.
  5. Purse your lips as you slowly exhale through your mouth.

Repeat each of these breathing exercises for five minutes or longer as they become easier to do.

For quick relief, help the body relax. While sitting, lean forward resting the elbows on the knees. Many people do this naturally. Sitting in front of a fan may help shortness of breath; however, some seniors require oxygen. Oxygen should only be given based on a doctor’s instructions.


After examining a senior, a doctor may recommend respiratory therapy. A respiratory therapist is a certified medical professional focused on patients with lung and breathing diseases and disorders. Their training allows them to conduct diagnostic tests in order to assess lung capacity and capability. Together with the senior’s health care team, the respiratory therapist will create and carry out a treatment plan. They’ll also keep track of progress and make recommendations along the way.

Treatment plans include techniques to strengthen the lungs and breathing muscles and help to clear out fluids like mucus. A doctor may prescribe aerosol medications that treat a number of respiratory diseases and infections. A respiratory therapist can show you how to use a nebulizer or other dose inhaler.

Consider the respiratory therapist a partner who can explain disease symptoms and train patients and caregivers in administering treatment and using mechanical ventilators and other machines on their own.


At Holly Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, we know respiratory health requires a balanced approach, so we focus on the whole person. When you visit our community, you’ll find a supportive, friendly atmosphere that promotes a positive lifestyle along with personalized respiratory care. Our seniors are encouraged to stay active with gentle movement based on their physical abilities. The delicious daily menus cater to proper nutrition, personal taste and unique dietary needs.

The Holly Hill respiratory therapists and staff are experienced caregivers who specialize in working with seniors who have COPD and other respiratory ailments. Along with the proper administration of doctor-prescribed medications, staff is trained to assess vital signs and work safely with oxygen equipment and ventilators such as BiPAP and CPAP.

We welcome you to visit or call us so we can answer any of your questions.