Diseases & Conditions
Taking an aging parent to the doctor? 10 helpful tips
When you take an aging parent to a medical appointment, you wind up playing many roles. Suddenly you're not just a concerned family member, but also a caregiver and a medical advocate. Our tips can help you navigate and assist your parent or family member in getting care.
Millions of family caregivers need guidance
While most of us aren't trained to juggle these jobs, we're in good company: more than 40 million people in the US are caring for family members. Like you, they are learning as they go along. And the veterans know that a key to accompanying a parent to the doctor is preparation, with good reason. "There's limited time with a doctor, maybe 20 or 30 minutes. You'll need to be efficient and organized so you can pack as much as possible into the visit," says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate chief of gerontology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Below are 10 tips to keep you on track before, during, and after the appointment.
Information to share or gather before medical visits
- Call ahead to say you'll be accompanying your parent. Find out if you'll be allowed in the exam room, and if your parent needs to sign a form so the doctor can speak with you. "Tell the office if your parent has designated you as the health care proxy — the person who'll speak for your parent if they're unable to answer for themselves," Dr. Salamon says. If so, share that document.
- Get basic information from your parent. You'll need to know their medical history to speak knowledgeably with the doctor and office staff. This includes current health conditions, past surgeries, current medications and supplements, and any allergies to medications. If your parent is unable to help, see if another family member has answers.
- Fill out paperwork in advance. Some medical offices want new and even existing patients to fill out paperwork detailing the patient's medical history, insurance, and current symptoms. That's time consuming and challenging for older parents who may have confusion or arthritis that makes writing hard. Ask if paperwork can be mailed or downloaded. Then complete the paperwork before appointment time.
- Gather intel to share with the doctor. "Is your parent taking medications properly? Have you noticed lapses in memory? Are the bills getting paid? Is the garbage being taken out? Does your parent use an assistive walking device or lean on furniture to walk? Is your mom or dad eating, bathing, or talking to people every day?" Dr. Salamon asks.
On the day of the medical visit
- Make a list of concerns. Create a bullet-point list of your parent's symptoms, questions, and other medical concerns. You can also include symptoms you've noticed in your parent, such as difficulty getting through daily activities. Keep the list brief and to the point. "You can hand it to the doctor at the time of the appointment. It's even more helpful if you send it a few days before," Dr. Salamon says.
- Bag up all medicines, vitamins, and other supplements. Bring these to the appointment so the doctor will know exactly what your parent takes and the doses. "It also helps me check if too many medications are being taken. For example, I've seen two bottles of the same prescription — a brand name and a generic — and the person is taking both and doesn't realize it," Dr. Salamon says.
- Decide who's doing the talking. Before going to the appointment, talk to your mom or dad about how much interaction you should have with the doctor. "Don't go in thinking you'll do all the talking, and don't be silent the whole time. Ask what your parent is comfortable with," Dr. Salamon says. "Is it okay to chime in if there's a gap in information?"
- Be respectful of your parent. Don't treat your parent like a child and don't criticize your parent, especially in front of the doctor. "Use words in a kind, supportive way," Dr. Salamon advises. "If a parent isn't sure about a medication, say, 'Mom, remember you started taking that medicine seven months ago?' Don't say, 'Mom, I can't believe you don't know your own medications!' It's humiliating. Help your parent retain dignity."
- Take notes. Write down the doctor's observations, advice, and instructions. Also, write down the answers to your list of concerns and questions.
After the medical visit
- Follow up. If the doctor provides instructions, post them in a visible spot in your parent's home. Also, write up or print out your notes and give them to your parent. Make sure your parent gets any prescribed medicines and knows how to take them. Mark upcoming appointments or tests on your parent's calendar.
Ask your parent if you can manage their patient portal account to communicate with the doctor. This may be more efficient than trying to talk by phone (remember to identify yourself as the adult child).
"And make sure your mom or dad understands the next steps of the treatment plan. You're on the care team now," Dr. Salamon says. "It's an important role, and your parent will be counting on you."
About the Author
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter
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