Hospitals are wonderful when you need them. There is no doubt, however, that it's better to stay healthy to begin with. No matter the skill of doctors and nurses, a health crisis is difficult. It's hard for older adults to bounce back. And many never quite bounce back to where they were before they were hospitalized. Preventing unnecessary hospitalizations, therefore, is one way to help your aging parents stay healthy and independent for as long as possible.
Removing and reducing common sources of injury is a first step. See our articles about preventing falls and driving safely. Problems with medication frequently result in a fall. Taking too many pills, not the right ones, or taking them in the wrong combination can cause your family member to feel dizzy and lose balance. Helping him or her manage medications well is a great way to reduce the risk of injury and hospitalization.
Help your parent follow the doctor's recommendations. Many seniors have five or more chronic conditions. If left unchecked, any one of them can result in a health crisis that leads to hospitalization. But most of these conditions can be managed. Sometimes the instructions are complicated. Or, they might involve making unwelcome changes in lifestyle. Your loved one will need to take the lead in these activities. But as a supportive family member, you can work together as a team to address his or her health needs.
Here are ways to help your loved one manage his or her health conditions effectively:
- Understand your loved one's condition. Once a diagnosis has been made, find out more about the illness. Ask the doctor to explain it so you understand what parts of the body are having trouble and why. If there are terms you don't understand, ask for clarification. You can also look up your loved one's condition on Medline Plus for seniors. This website is published by the National Library of Medicine. It has large type and is written in easy-to-understand language. You might also wish to look at our article about educating yourself.
- Stay abreast of the medication schedule. Help your family member organize his or her medications so it's easy to take the right ones at the right time. (See our article about managing medications.) Bring the medications to each doctor's visit and make sure they are all still pertinent and that there are no conflicts. If a change in medication is advised, find out how that affects the others. Are there any conflicts? Any existing prescriptions that can or should be dropped? When should the new medicine be taken? How long should it be taken? Any side effects? Because medications change frequently, come up with a way to easily know/look up the most current schedule. Consider setting up a free online account at MyMedSchedule.com to help you and your loved one keep track.
- Know the signs and symptoms of problems. Ask the doctor to group symptoms as “green light” for normal recovery, “yellow light” for early signs of a possible problem, and “red light” for a significant problem. Find out what to do and who to call in case of yellow light or red light symptoms.
- Support your loved one to make lifestyle changes. Many chronic conditions improve dramatically with changes in diet or exercise. Stopping smoking is one of the bigger lifestyle changes that can improve health and keep your loved one out of the hospital. But these changes are not easy. And nagging will only build resentment. In the spirit of collaboration, however, you can still support your loved one to make what changes he or she can. Even little steps add up. Consider reading our article about supporting a family member to change in "Your Changing Role."
- See the doctor for follow-up within a week after a hospitalization. Rehospitalizations are unfortunately very common. Although your loved one may have been released to home, that doesn't mean he or she is totally "out of the woods." While your loved one is still in the hospital, find out what doctor(s) he or she should see afterward for follow-up. Request that the hospital forward records to all of them. Before you leave the hospital, call the doctor's office to set up an appointment for the next week. You may need to be firm with the doctor’s receptionist. Explain that your loved one has just been hospitalized and needs to have a follow-up appointment to be sure he or she is not getting worse.