ER Visits May Signal a Decline in Health Among Seniors

When an elderly loved-one’s health begins to fail, sometimes quite rapidly, family and friends are often left wondering what they could have done to get ahead of this decline and new research may have some answers.

According to research published recently in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, when an older adult visits the emergency room, it should sound a warning to family and caregivers that a serious health problem may be on the horizon.   In a study of 754 community-dwelling seniors over a period of up to 14 years, those who visited the ER had a significantly higher disability score.  Even when patients were sent home and not hospitalized, illness or injury leading to a visit to the ER was often linked with decline in function over the following 6 months.

The Yale School of Medicine study found that when an elderly person visits the ER, they are 14 per cent more likely to acquire a disability in the following 6 months.  What can caregivers do to help prevent this decline?  Awareness of the problem is the first step; just because a older adult is sent home from the ER, it doesn’t always mean everything is fine.  The trip itself should serve as a warning that other health issues may be at work.  And seniors who have had a fall may start to limit their activities for fear of falling again which can quickly lead to difficulty with independent living and self care.

Caregivers, friends and family of older adults can help advocate for seniors by staying with them during a hospital visit and if possible, requesting a quiet room where they can be monitored for any changes and kept calm, helping to prevent falls.  Delirium is a common problem for elderly patients left alone in hospital hallways where noise and confusion can leave them vulnerable.

In an effort to make ERs more geriatric-friendly, the American College of Emergency Physicians has endorsed department guidelines to help improved the care of seniors in emergency departments.   Included in the guidelines is a tool to identify at-risk seniors who may need to be treated as outpatients the following day.

Identifying At-Risk Seniors – Questions for the ER

  • Before the injury or illness, did you need someone to help you on a regular basis?
  • Since the injury or illness, have you needed more help than usual?
  • Have you been hospitalized for one or more nights in the past six months?
  • In general, do you see well?
  • In general, do you have serious problems with your memory?
  • Do you take more than 3 medications daily?

Source:  American Geriatric Society

For more information about what to look for in a senior-friendly emergency room, follow this link to