Role Reversal: Taking Aging Parents to the Doctor
October 29, 2014 | Home and Family
It’s a scene that gets played out in doctors’ offices all the time. An adult son takes his elderly father for an appointment after weeks of hearing him complain about a sharp pain whenever he takes a deep breath. Yet when the doctor asks, “How are you, Jim?” dear old Dad answers, “I’m fine, thanks.”
You’re fine? Really?
It can be challenging to watch an aging parent manage his or her medical care. Many seniors experience some amount of anxiety when they go to the doctor. Conversations with physicians tend to be rushed, and often too little time is set aside for the patient to speak freely. Add to this the fact that many older Americans grew up at a time when people felt uncomfortable discussing personal matters, even with their family doctor, and you can understand why aging patients often don’t get the medical attention they need. Yet having a well-documented timeline of mental and physical changes is essential to securing future insurance claims.
If your parents are getting older and have begun to develop chronic medical problems, now may be a good time to start accompanying them to some or all of their doctors’ appointments. What’s the best way to give your parents added support without robbing them of their dignity and autonomy? The following pointers can help you make the most of those visits.
1. Watch for Signs. How do you know when it’s time to tag along on your parents’ visits to the doctor? One of the first clues that your parents may need extra attention is when they have trouble recounting what the doctor said during their appointment or when they don’t seem to clearly understand whatever next steps were recommended.
Should you decide it’s time for you to step in, have a conversation with your parents first. Let them know, gently but firmly, that you’d like to join them for their next appointment. Perhaps tell them that having an extra set of ears at this visit will enable the doctor to give them better care. Many seniors are relieved to have someone to help them stay on top of their medical needs.
2. Get Your Ducks in a Row. Privacy laws require that you receive your parents’ permission to talk with their doctor, so be sure to have your parents sign a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) form. Also, now may be a good time to:
- Check to see if your parents have up-to-date advance directives in place and a medical power of attorney. If they don’t, use this time to get those very important documents prepared and signed.
- Make copies of your parents’ insurance cards. Also compile a list of your parents’ medical providers and contact information.
- Provide each of your parents’ respective doctors your emergency contact information; ask them to contact you with any significant changes.
- Ask the physician’s office to provide a current list of diagnoses, medications, allergies and health history. If one or both of your parents are seeing more than one doctor, make sure these doctors are communicating.
- Do the same with their pharmacy to make sure your parents are getting all of their prescriptions filled.
3. Prepare for the Appointment. Preparation is crucial to getting the most out of a doctor’s appointment. Along with your parents, make a list of questions and/or topics you’d like to discuss, and prioritize them. If this is your first visit or you have more concerns than usual, ask for a little more time when making the appointment to cover everything on your list.
4. Open the Lines of Communication. One of the most important roles you can play is that of your parents’ eyes and ears at their doctor visits:
- Keep the focus on your parent and allow him or her to take the lead. When needed, use the list of questions/concerns you compiled to guide the conversation. If a sibling or other relative is accompanying you and your parent on this visit, be clear about the role of each person in the room to avoid confusion.
- Ask the physician to explain your parent’s health status and the purpose of any medications he or she may be taking. Verify the dosage, how often it should be taken and whether it needs to be taken with or without food. Also ask whether there are side effects to consider and if there are any over-the-counter or prescription drugs and/or foods and beverages your parent should avoid. And discuss any lifestyle factors of concern. For example, does the doctor feel your parent is safe living at home? Should he or she exercise? Avoid certain foods? See the doctor more frequently?
- Discuss what you can do to help the doctor deliver the best care for your parent. If your parent has a progressive disease such as dementia, ask the doctor how advanced it is and what changes you should expect. Ask what kinds of symptoms you should report to the doctor right away and which ones warrant an emergency call to 911. Then, verify how the doctor would prefer to hear from you, by phone or email.
- Write things down, especially if your parent is experiencing cognitive decline. Being able to trace the mental and physical changes your parent experiences will help the physician devise a suitable treatment/intervention plan. It will also help you if you ever need to make an insurance claim on your parent’s behalf.
Parents spend decades providing unconditional love and support to their children. With more Americans living well beyond their 70s and 80s, more adult children are finding that they now need to provide love and support in return. While this “role reversal” may seem disconcerting, it’s important to remember the rewards of the situation as well: When you participate in your parents’ health care, you are providing a gift of love that can make a huge difference in their safety and well-being.