How Do You Know When Your Aging Parent Needs Emergency Care?

The signs might be subtle
Elederly man in hospital bed with family holding hand

“I don’t feel well.”

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Those four words can mean very different things depending on who says them — from “I ate too much at dinner” to “I’m having chest pain.” When it’s your aging parent or another older family member speaking, it sometimes means there’s something seriously wrong.

Judith Welsh, MD, FACEP, Associate Chief Experience Officer and Medical Director of Community Paramedicine, advises adult children to listen closely to these types of seemingly minor complaints. “In the ED, we’ve found they’re often related to a very serious underlying disease,” she says.

When to call 911 or visit the ED

“If you’re concerned about the possibility of stroke or heart attack, call 911 immediately,” Dr. Welsh says.

Any symptom of vascular blockage, such as with a stroke, is an immediate cause for concern, she emphasizes. “Chest pain, weakness in the arm, legs or face, and slurred speech are common symptoms, but some people may just feel short of breath or exhausted.”

The signs of a heart attack are sometimes just as subtle.

“Elderly patients are less likely to have ‘typical’ symptoms of a heart attack, and they may look fine but actually have a life-threatening issue,” Dr. Welsh says. “Look for any signs of weakness, confusion or lethargy. Dizziness, falls and heartburn symptoms can also be signs of a heart attack.”

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What does the emergency department need to know?

You’ll need to provide as complete a picture of your parent’s medical history as you can. Be prepared to provide a list of medications, health conditions and allergies.

You’ll also need to have your parent’s insurance information and a name and contact information for his or her doctor.

What if you don’t live nearby?

Don’t wait until there’s an emergency to prepare.

Identify and keep a list of phone numbers for two or three neighbors or friends who live near your aging parents. Ask them to help keep an eye on your parents regularly.

And then call on them to check in if your parents don’t answer the phone or if you think your parent sounds “off” when they talk to you.

Look up the local non-emergency number for police dispatch and keep that handy, also. “You can ask for a welfare check to make sure your parent is awake and alert and not having a medical crisis,” says Dr. Welsh.

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What if your parent resists going to the ED?

Emphasize the risks of avoiding treatment. And call for backup if there’s a friend or family member who tends to get better results when persuading the person.

“Sometimes it’s even the primary care doctor or nurse who is more convincing to the person,” says Dr. Welsh.

Remember that your parent may be confused and may even start to panic.

Having a plan in place for an emergency you hope never happens can help you stay calm and do what it takes to get mom or dad the help they need as quickly as possible.

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