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Doctor Visits with Elderly Parents

Your parents deserve to receive the best possible care as they get older. With that in mind, you can help them stay on top of treating any health problems they have, simply by showing an interest in their health and asking the right questions at doctor visits.

If your parents have begun to develop chronic medical problems, it’s a good idea to educate yourself about their medical care and form a relationship with their doctor. Offer to go to an appointment with them—sometimes, older patients are reluctant to ask questions because they don’t want to bother a doctor. By accompanying your parents to their medical appointments, you can act as a health advocate on their behalf and take notes that may help in later discussions with them. (Remember, privacy laws require that you receive your parents’ permission to talk to their doctor.)

Before the Appointment

Talk to your parents

Following medical directions can be a big challenge with older adults—not because they don’t care, but because their medical needs are increasingly complex. If your parent isn’t taking a prescribed drug or sticking with a heart-healthy diet or physical rehabilitation program as their doctor ordered, it’s important to find out why. To help your parents get top-notch care, ask questions like:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What problems do you have with any of your medications?
  • What stumbling blocks are you running into?
  • What questions do you wish you could ask your doctor(s)?
  • What would help you make healthier choices?

Make note of any changes in your parent’s medical condition, appearance, habits, or lifestyle, such as:

  • Has a cough worsened, or does your parent seem to get winded more easily?
  • Has your parent lost or gained weight?
  • Does your parent seem to tire more quickly?
  • Have you noticed changes in mood, behavior, alertness, or memory?
  • What about balance or coordination?

If your parent is taking medication for chronic conditions, make note of whether those conditions are still managed effectively. Has your parent started a new medication, and are they experiencing any changes that coincide with starting to take it? What over-the-counter or alternative remedies are they taking (including teas and supplements)? If you think a medication may be causing side effects or making another condition worse, be sure to bring it to the doctor’s attention.

Gather information

Being organized will help keep you calm and focused. It will also be useful to the doctor. To prepare for the appointment: Write down the reason(s) for your visit and any questions you have, so you don’t forget anything. Partners in Care has a Doctor Visit Worksheet you can use as a guide. Be sure to bring:

  • A notepad and pen
  • A medical history or records
  • A list of medications, including those prescribed by other doctors and over-the-counter medications (this Medication Tracker is helpful)

At the Doctor Visit

Take notes

Ask about your parents’ health status. Write down vital signs, such as blood pressure readings and weight.

  • If your parents have high cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure, ask for results of cholesterol or blood glucose tests. Are their levels are within normal limits? If not, what are their target numbers? What lifestyle modifications or medications will help them get their numbers under control?
  • If your parent has a progressive disease such as dementia, COPD, or congestive heart failure, ask the doctor how advanced it is and what changes you should expect.

Manage medicines

Ask the doctor to explain or review each medication, using the Medication Tracker to note information such as:

  • What it’s for or why it was prescribed
  • Whether it’s a short-term medication (such as an antibiotic for an infection) or a long-term drug to manage a chronic condition
  • How it works
  • How often it should be taken
  • Whether it should be taken with or without food (if it’s an oral drug)
  • If there are any over-the-counter or prescription drugs (such as aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or beta blockers), or foods or beverages (such as grapefruit juice) you should avoid
  • What possible side effects you should be aware of, or interactions with other drugs

In addition, ask about any vaccines your parent might need: seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccines, pneumonia, shingles, and pertussis (whooping cough).

Discuss lifestyle factors

Ask the doctor:

  • How your parents should modify their diet (to lose weight or to address a condition)
  • How often your parents should exercise
  • Whether there are any special precautions they should take to ward off infections (especially if a parent has diabetes or is immune-compromised)

Also, should your parents learn new stress management techniques?

Plan ahead

Ask about follow-up care—at home, when you should come back, and whether your parent needs to see any specialists before their next doctor visit.

In addition, ask the doctor how you can best help: Since you want to be an active player on your parents’ health care team, clarify your role in helping with their medical condition(s) and how you can help the doctor deliver good care.

  • What stumbling blocks can you help your parents to avoid?
  • How often should your parents check readings (if necessary) at home?
  • What kinds of changes should you report to the doctor right away?
  • How would the office prefer to hear from you—by phone or email, for example? And what specific symptoms signal an emergency and warrant a call to 911? Be sure to give the doctor—and his support staff—your contact information, too.

Ask questions and clarify answers

Speak up if you don’t understand something, and make a point of asking your parent if he or she has questions. To make sure you’re not overlooking anything important, it helps to ask the doctor a few catch-all questions, such as:

  • What else do we need to know?
  • What stumbling blocks should I watch out for?
  • What signs suggest that a condition is getting better or worse?
  • What kinds of symptoms or changes should always be reported to you?
  • When should we seek emergency care and what kind of medication should my parent take in the meantime?

If you’ve done research before the appointment that suggests an alternative treatment the doctor hasn’t mentioned, feel free to bring it up. Try an approach such as “What do you think about this?”

Remember, the doctor may be the medical expert, but you and your loved one are the experts on your situation. Remember too that a doctor’s job is to care for people. You might be reluctant to “bother” a doctor, but a good physician knows that providing vital information to patients and caregivers is a huge part of that care and won’t feel bothered.

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