Creating an Emergency Medical Plan for Elderly Parents
The Caring Generation® – Episode 147 August 10, 2022. Learn why creating an emergency plan for elderly parents is important to respond to sudden changes in health and hospitalizations. Caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson shares practical tips about navigating the healthcare system for aging adults and their caregivers.
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Caregivers ask—why creating an emergency medical plan for elderly parents is important. First, if you consider yourself just helping out elderly parents or grandparents now and then, it’s important to consider that as they age, any health problems they have today can worsen. Second, parents are perfectly healthy today; some unexpected health changes will likely happen in the future.
Creating an Emergency Medical Plan for Elderly Parents
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Changes in Health are Inevitable
Changes in health happen to everyone eventually. If you look back at your life, what health events stand out? Maybe you had chickenpox or measles or had your tonsils removed. Did you go to the dentist and need fillings or have your wisdom teeth removed?
While we may not consider these issues a health concern, they represent a change in health. For example, one day, a person is healthy, and the next day they are not. Feeling good—being healthy—and then experiencing changes is part of life.
Aging is associated with an increased likelihood of health concerns, especially if you didn’t learn about aspects of staying healthy early in life. For some, watching a grandparent or a parent struggle with poor health was an early life lesson that may have changed how a person looks at health. If this was you, you might have implemented lifestyle changes.
Health Conditions Are Not Always Hereditary
Knowing that just because health concerns run in your family doesn’t mean that your destiny is to experience the same health issues as your parents. While research confirms that some health issues may be hereditary, much of our health depends on daily nutrition and exercise habits.
So being healthy is more in each individual’s control than you might think. The goal to be healthy relates to maintaining physical and mental health.
Many factors in life depend on maintaining a positive mental outlook. If you have negative parents who complain, worry, or criticize, they are more likely to experience poor health. If you are a family caregiver feeling stressed or worried, this can affect your health.
Find Tips to Manage Caregiver Stress and Pressure in Pamela’s Online Webinar
Depression and anxiety are related to health concerns like digestive disorders, heart disease, obesity, sleep disorders, thyroid problems, breathing problems, substance abuse, and chronic pain. Adults diagnosed with chronic health problems may experience depression because the everyday stress of managing a chronic disease can cause worry and anxiety.
Proactive and Preventative Health Habits are Essential
So, focusing on proactive and preventative health habits and maintaining a positive mental attitude is essential. The experience of chronic health problems and mental health concerns is why having an emergency medical plan for elderly parents is crucial if you are an adult child, a spouse in a caregiving role, or if you may eventually be a family caregiver.
Being a family caregiver can be rewarding but also very stressful resulting in health concerns for the caregiver. Caregiver stress and anxiety also mean family caregivers should have an emergency medical plan.
An Emergency Medical Plan for Elderly Parents Supports Good Care
Think of an emergency medical plan as a backup plan to make sure that you, an aging parent, or a spouse get the care you need in the event of a sudden or unexpected change in health. If you or your elderly parents don’t regularly see a doctor, you may have little experience dealing with the healthcare system, and the information routinely requested to get good care.
Likewise, if you have never visited anyone in the hospital or a nursing home, you may have no experience with these healthcare environments. So, navigating healthcare by working with doctors, nurses, and other personnel is like visiting a foreign country where the residents don’t speak the same language.
Doctors, nurses, and other personnel working in the healthcare system use acronyms and medical terms that patients and consumers don’t understand. So if any healthcare provider says something you don’t understand, it’s essential to ask them to explain.
Navigating unfamiliar territory is critical for creating an emergency medical plan for elderly parents or yourself. Unfortunately, you don’t know what you don’t know and maybe not even the questions you should be asking.
Having Medical Information at Your Fingertips Reduces Caregiver Stress
Having basic medical information at your fingertips can reduce the moment’s stress and allow you to focus on what is most important: supplying information to help your loved one receive a health diagnosis and a treatment plan.
So, let’s review why having an emergency medical plan for elderly parents is important and the information you want to collect so that you have it readily available if mom or dad has a sudden change in health. Creating this plan supports having a care plan for elderly parents.
If you currently attend doctor’s appointments with elderly parents or if you attend routine doctor appointments, consider the information you supply at each visit. The person at the front desk usually hands you a clipboard and wants to verify your identification and health insurance.
One of the first steps in creating an emergency medical plan for elderly parents is to make copies of their health insurance and identification cards. For elderly parents, begin with copying, scanning, or taking a photo of a driver’s license or a state ID with a photograph you can print.
Then make copies of health insurance cards which can be a parent’s red, white, and blue Medicare card or another insurance card like AARP Secure Horizons, Kaiser, Anthem, Tricare, or another alternate insurance provider.
If you are a parent’s agent for Medical Durable Power of Attorney, you will want to send that document to the health insurance companies so that you can do the same in addition to your parent speaking with them. We will talk more about the importance of having legal documents to manage healthcare in a few minutes.
Information to Gather
What other questions does the staff at the doctor’s office ask? For example, they want to know what medications and supplements an elderly parent takes.
The easiest way to provide this information is to write or type a list that your parents can keep in a wallet or purse.
Make sure to include all over-the-counter supplements. These products might be a multi-vitamin, Calcium, Vitamin B-12 Advil, aspirin, or Metamucil.
For more on managing medications for elderly parents listen to The Caring Generation Podcast Episode 21 featuring an interview with Dr. Neha Jain a geriatric psychiatrist from the University of Connecticut Health System.
Including over-the-counter items on a medical list is essential because sometimes, non-prescription products can negatively interact with prescription medications. For example, one of the main reasons for hospital emergency room visits results from the actions of elderly parents who do not take medications as prescribed, take too many, or forget to take their medications.
Family Caregivers Can Assist With Medication and Health Management
So if your parents are struggling to order, take or set up their prescription medications, medication management is one area where family caregivers can assist. If you go to the pharmacy to pick up medications somewhere nearby on a shelf, you will find weekly plastic medication boxes marked with the days of the week with options for morning, noon, afternoon, and bedtime slots.
Family caregivers can pick up medications and set them up for an entire week or several weeks at a time. Creating an emergency medical plan for elderly parents also includes having a list of your parent’s health diagnoses.
Online Health Portals
Where do you find a list of a parent’s health diagnoses? Access to an online health portal for a doctor’s office will have this information. Or, if your parent has given you written permission or you are the agent under a medical power of attorney, you can contact the doctor’s office to request a document called an H&P—history and physical— or recent doctor visit notes.
An H&P or recent visit medical appointment visit notes will list current medications, over-the-counter products, and health diagnoses. Now, it’s important to remember that some of this information is provided by your parent if they are attending a regular appointment or if a new appointment then the information may come from records transferred from a prior physician.
The information in a medical chart may be incorrect or entered incorrectly, so it is critical to review this information for accuracy. Here’s a simple example. I recently went for a check-up, and the person who took my vitals entered my weight as 196.2 lbs when my correct weight is 70 pounds less.
The doctor looked at me and questioned my weight because my body mass index (BMI) was documented at 32 when it should have been 21 based on my weight and height. She wondered why her staff didn’t make the connection between my weight, height, and incorrect BMI number.
Curious about how to calculate BMI? Check out this chart.
Physicians Rely on Medical History to Diagnose and Treat Health
Any inaccurate detail that a physician relies on when attempting to diagnose or treat a patient by reviewing medical documents can cause serious problems. So as a family caregiver or as the patient, it’s essential to take the time to review your medical records for accuracy and request updates.
An emergency medical plan for elderly parents should also include a list of past surgeries and the approximate dates. For example, if your parents had a hip or knee replacement and metal parts were put in the body this is important to know if an MRI or other type of body scan is needed.
A list of allergies to medications or food is also essential, along with listing the kind of reaction.
Maybe mom or dad is allergic to bee stings or eating onions, or they experience nausea or vomiting when taking a particular medication.
All this is important for doctors to know so that they don’t prescribe a medicine that will cause problems. So, along with documenting all this information, list contact information for the pharmacy or pharmacies your parents prefer to use, including the name, address, and telephone number.
More Tips for Managing Health Care for Elderly Parents
While gathering and compiling this information can take time and effort, having a list of factual information will make your job as a caregiver more manageable.
You will have a book of historical information for your parents that you can keep up to date and take to the doctor’s appointments you attend.
You’ll also have the information you need for the staff at a hospital emergency room if your parents need time-sensitive care.
For more on this topic, check out the article 10 Tips to Make Doctor Appointments More Effective.
Next—and this is as much for yourself as for your parents—create an emergency contact list. Who are the agents under a medical and financial power of attorney if your parents have their legal documents? Add a list of siblings or family members to be notified if your parents are in the hospital.
Before I forget, returning to the topic of doctors. If your parents see multiple doctors meaning specialists like a cardiologist, urologist, or endocrinologist, you’ll want to add these doctors to the list of information you create. And if you print a copy from the portal of the most recent doctor visit notes or request a copy—add these to the book.
Compiling this information is important. If multiple doctors prescribe medications, each should know who is prescribing what medicine and managing what condition. A lack of communication between doctors can be a recipe for disaster if one doctor crosses over to another’s territory and begins changing medications.
Specialists are specialists for a reason. Physician specialists have more expertise than primary care physicians, which is valuable for managing specific health conditions.
Managing A Parent’s Household
Why having an emergency medical plan for elderly parents is also vital for managing the household if a parent goes to the hospital and stays for several days or if mom or dad transfers to a skilled nursing community or a nursing home for rehabilitation care.
Do your parents have:
- Pets who need care
- Plants in the home that need watering
- Mail or a newspaper to pick up
- Light timers so it looks like someone is home in the evenings
- Lawn sprinklers that should go off, a lawn to be mowed, or snow to be shoveled
- Is there food in the refrigerator that will spoil if not removed
- Trash to be taken out?
Having an emergency medical plan for elderly parents goes beyond the basics of managing health concerns to responsibility for maintaining their home.
Organizing Care from a Distance
Another reason why having an emergency medical plan for elderly parents is essential is if you are a family caregiver who lives at a distance. Or you may be unable to go to the hospital or visit a parent at a nursing home during working hours.
There is no substitute for being “on the ground” and available during a health emergency. In a perfect world, it’s best to take or meet elderly parents at the hospital emergency room.
When anyone is sick or not feeling well, accurate information may not be relayed to doctors or other healthcare personnel. Plus, if a parent has any degree of memory loss or pain, being in a strange place—the hospital— can result in disorientation and confusion.
This is why documented medical information makes managing or organizing care from a distance easier. When medical information is written or typed in a document, you can fax or email it to relay the information to the doctors in the emergency room if you cannot be there in person. Speaking to the doctor on the phone may be challenging.
What It’s Like to Be in the Hospital
Then let’s talk about the actual hospital stay. Hospitals are the place for treatment and monitoring if there is a health emergency.
But hospitals are certainly not the place for a patient to rest. There are endless rounds of nurse interruptions to take vitals—blood pressure, temperature, and pulse—every four hours around the clock. So periods of sleep may be no more than 3 or 4 hours at a time.
There may be daily blood draws, making a parent wonder if they will have any veins that have not been stuck with needles. IV bags may need to be changed. There are machines constantly beeping.
So sleep, while very healing, rarely happens in the hospital. As a result, most patients, by the time they leave the hospital, are sleep deprived.
Then imagine the suggestion of getting out of bed for physical activity to walk the halls while in the hospital. Lying in bed for elderly persons for any extended time can result in more significant physical weakness if a parent was not physically active and strong before the hospital stay.
Even taking a shower or washing one’s hair can be a significant physical endeavor that requires scheduling. IVs must be disconnected and the arm wrapped in plastic, so it doesn’t get wet.
If the IV is inserted in the bend of the arm, this arm cannot be used to wash the body or hair. If you are a family member, you can offer to assist a loved one take a shower if they are physically not at risk of falling.
Also, don’t take or leave any personal belongings at the hospital that can become lost or stolen.
What’s the Plan for After a Hospitalization or Nursing Home Stay?
So what this means is that while an elderly parent receives treatment in the hospital for a specific medical concern, mom or dad may be in weaker physical condition when they discharge to rehab or home.
Having a plan for a loved one to be discharged from the hospital or skilled nursing community is another reason for having an emergency medical plan for elderly parents.
Learn What Caregivers Should Know About Nursing Homes and Rehab on The Caring Generation Podcast Episode 51 with Guest Dr. Lynn Flint.
If your parent is still physically weak when returning home, will a family member stay with them at their house for several days to avoid the risk of an accident and a parent returning to the hospital?
While it may be hard for family caregivers to imagine, health conditions that result in hospitalizations can result in serious setbacks for elderly parents in poor physical condition or those diagnosed with memory loss.
If you live far away, who will pick up their prescriptions and groceries, so elderly parents have something to eat or have the ingredients to make a meal? Are parents physically safe to bathe alone without experiencing a fall or injury? If they have pets, can they return to pet care?
When creating an emergency medical plan for elderly parents beyond a hospitalization or nursing home stay, there are many things to consider. For example, depending on your parent’s health, it can take weeks to recover fully, or a parent may not bounce back from health issues and require more ongoing care.
For example, recovering from a hip fracture may take 3-6 months or 6-12 months, depending on a parent’s age and physical condition. Some patients never return to walking as well as they did before the operation.
It is possible that a parent may not be able to continue to live independently in their home. Then what next?
Alternate Care Options
If you are a family caregiver creating an emergency medical plan, you’ll want to investigate options and know where to find information about hiring in-home caregivers or looking at assisted living communities. While the hope is that these options may not be necessary, the future health condition of an elderly parent can be hard to predict, particularly if there are multiple health conditions.
What if your parent is hospitalized and you haven’t created an emergency medical plan for elderly parents? Then use this time while hospitalized or in a nursing home for rehabilitation to begin compiling this information and learn about the options for more care.
It’s better to have a backup plan for additional care and not need it than to need it and not have a plan. Unfortunately, many adult children become 24/7 caregivers due to a lack of planning.
Upon discharge home, elderly parents must commit to participating in recommendations from doctors about physical therapy, exercise, taking medications, and so on if they want to get better. Taking these actions can be a mind over matter game if your parent is depressed or anxious or feeling hopeless about the day-to-day situation.
As the caregiver, you may have to be insistent to the point that you exercise with a parent, cook meals, and take extra steps to ensure participation. Know that because of being hospitalized and the effect on the body, an elderly parent may be tired or experience low energy when returning home.
A follow-up medical appointment should be scheduled as soon as possible with a primary care doctor or specialist to run bloodwork to ensure that measured levels are maintained or returning to normal. Excellent nutrition is vital to help parents return to normal energy levels.
Many elderly will say that they are too tired or don’t have an appetite, so they refuse to eat more than a few bites of food. Food supports having the energy to be physically active and supplies necessary vitamins and minerals to the body. Good nutrition for the elderly is extremely important.
Learn Tips to Keep Parents Healthy in Pamela’s Webinar Program.
Physical activity—as challenging as it may be—is one of the ways to improve energy levels and a desire to eat. A hospital stay can be life-changing for a person of any age. A commitment to physical effort and positive thinking is required to recover fully.
So what else remains on the list for having an emergency plan for elderly parents? The obvious is to make an effort each day to improve and maintain health so that if a sudden change in health occurs, the long-term effects are not as life-changing.
Then along these lines is the importance of establishing regular care with a physician who can get to know you. Regular care means seeing a doctor each year for bloodwork so that you know your numbers for blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and so on.
The benefit of regular medical care is to prevent health issues from happening. Or, if health issues are identified, you have the opportunity to make lifestyle changes so that your life is not significantly affected.
Having a physician also allows you to establish access to a healthcare portal where you can review your health diagnosis, medications, recommended tests, etc. Regular medical care with a doctor you trust is important for adults of all ages, not only elderly loved ones.
So if you or your parents do not have a primary care doctor for regular care, add this to your to-do list and get this set up. The other item we discussed only briefly is the legal aspect of having family or others who can help you make medical decisions or pay bills if you are sick.
For more on the subject of estate planning documents that include a medical and financial power of attorney, a living will, or a will or trust, there are multiple articles on my website about why these are important and the information caregivers should know about the process.
If you have a parent diagnosed with memory loss in the later stages and these documents were not completed, you may be looking at guardianship and conservatorship. Articles about these topics are also on my website at pameladwilson.com.
The better prepared you are with an emergency medical plan for elderly parents that is well thought out and organized, the less stressed you will feel when an unexpected situation arises. Creating this document will allow you and your parents to discuss their health and the medical care and treatment they want or don’t want.
So rather than being in the dark about their wishes, you will be able to ensure that their desires for care are put in place to the best of your abilities and within the constraints of their financial ability to pay for care. Completing this activity will also allow you to make a similar plan.
Looking For Help Caring for Elderly Parents? Find the Information Including Step-by-Step Processes in Pamela’s Online Program.
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