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Old? Don’t Go to the Hospital Alone


We live in a time that offers both great advantages and risks to an old person’s health. We have so many medical advances. We have state of the art medical centers.  There are mind boggling medical technologies that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Yet, with all of this, a trip to the hospital for an older adult can result in dangerous consequences.

The ER is No Place for an Old Person

I’ll never forget rushing to the hospital after finding out that my father had been taken there after he fell off his bike. I rushed into the ER and found him on a gurney, lined up in the hall like many others who had to take a number for an exam room. My 84 year old dad, who had been there for hours alone, was shivering with a flimsy sheet covering him, in pain from what turned out to be a broken hip. I cannot describe all of the feelings that I had in that moment. But after finding a blanket and hailing down an overworked nurse for any scrap of information that I could get, one of my more pronounced feelings was confusion. I was a previous employee of this hospital, a place that I had been proud to work at. What had happened to the level of care?

It is a sad reality that this is not an uncommon scenario that older adults routinely face when they are plunked at the gate of our healthcare system. Often unable to communicate their own needs, they must have an advocate with them. A family member, a neighbor, a geriatric care manager must be there to assist and help the health care providers see them for who they are. That is, to see a real person who has a whole life outside of their work shift, and is far more than a problem to be solved and moved onto another floor or discharged.

See the Person, Not Just the Age, Please

In an article in Next Avenue, Dr. Val Jones reveals how common ageist assumptions can influence medical decisions that can worsen health outcomes. Dr. Jones aptly refers to this as “senior profiling.” She recounts older patients who have temporary confusion diagnosed with dementia; a person who has had a stroke is labeled “an alcoholic;” and unnecessary and costly testing that is done because the health care system does not know the elderly patient or make the time to read the person’s medical history thoroughly.

Dr. Jones reminds her fellow practitioners that people of any age, when presenting at the hospital, are not their “usual selves.” This is so true. Many are in acute pain which causes irritability and changes in behavior. When I worked in inpatient geriatric psychiatry, the nursing staff would regularly remind ourselves that the person we were caring for was only known to us for the time of their stay; they led a whole life unknown to us outside of our care unit. That whole life, particularly of an elder, is filled with a story that we may only be honored to know a fraction of.

All health care recipients, no matter what age, deserve truly individualized care and attention. This cannot be achieved by making quick and inaccurate assumptions.Someone’s life may depend upon it.



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