More adult children are taking on the role of caregivers for their parents, but not all are ready for a health emergency that needs immediate attention. When a crisis arises, chances are the hospital emergency room will be the destination and everyone should be prepared.
"Primary-care doctors are becoming less and less accessible, and if you have an acute problem, chances of getting seen by your doctor that day are slim and none," says Dr. David John, former chairman of geriatric emergency medicine for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), a professional trade and advocacy organization. "If you're sick at night or on a weekend, there's no place else to go but the emergency department."
Most emergency departments are set up to treat otherwise healthy people with one health condition, such as a broken bone or a contusion. Elderly patients often present different problems for doctors because myriad other health issues may be causing or coexisting with the problem that prompted the emergency room visit. Even when the cause of the emergency is treated, it may be too risky to send an elderly patient home.
"We can't just kick them out the door like we can a 40-year-old with a broken arm," says John, co-chairman of emergency medicine at Johnson Memorial Medical Center in Stafford Springs, Conn. John notes that while seniors account for about 15 percent of people who show up at emergency rooms, they compose 42 percent of those admitted to the hospital from the ER.
Family members should be ready long before an emergency arises by preparing a medical emergency packet. The packet should include names of doctors, current medications and medical history. It should also include durable power of attorney for medical decisions and any "do not resuscitate" instructions. Packets should be distributed to all caregivers and family members. Keep an extra packet attached to the parent's refrigerator: Emergency medical technicians are trained to look there when they come to the home.
Make sure you or another loved one accompanies your parent to the emergency room. "It's very, very critical for us that family members show up," John says. Take the case of an elderly patient who comes to the emergency room confused and uncommunicative. "I don't know if that's their baseline or if something's happened," John says.