Everyone with aging parents dreads getting “the call”. Everyone’s life is busy with work, house chores, taking care of the family, and volunteering. So, when you get that phone call informing you that your parent is in the hospital, it’s no longer business as usual. There’s a hundred questions on your mind. What happened? Will your parent be okay? What do the doctors say?
After the initial shock of the news wears off, it’s time to make decisions.
Should you go to the hospital right away – or wait?
Your first instinct may be to drop everything and rush to the hospital. If your parents live close by, that may be the best course of action. However, if the hospital is several hours away by car (or in another state) you may want to pause. Is it better for you to travel now, or would you be of more help if you wait? Think about your parent’s current condition, prognosis, timing of likely discharge, and whether they have a local support network. Remember that only you know what’s the right thing to do. Don’t let other people’s judgment get in the way.
If you opt to delay travel, inform the hospital of any important medical and legal documents they may need. Offer to fax your parent’s health care proxy paperwork or advance directive, and stay in touch.
Get organized before you head out the door
If you decide to go to the hospital, take some time to get yourself organized. How much time you have will depend on your parent’s condition and prognosis. Even if the situation is time-sensitive, take a moment to pack copies of important documents, such as the healthcare proxy, advance directive, power of attorney, list of current medications, etc. It’s a good idea to keep those documents together in a labeled folder so that you can grab them quickly without having to dig through files or boxes.
If you have a bit more time to pack, throw in your toiletries, a sweater in case the hospital room gets chilly, a change of clothes, your phone and the charger to go with it, a laptop, book or a reading tablet, a water bottle, and your own medications for a day or two.
Think through the logistics
Your life doesn’t press “pause” when your parent is hospitalized, so you need to think about all the tasks that you are typically responsible for. Do you need childcare arrangements? Pet sitting? A call to work or the organization you volunteer at to arrange for an absence? Remember that this is an emergency. You shouldn’t feel the pressure to keep everything running as if nothing happened. Make things easy for yourself by canceling or rescheduling anything non-essential.
Once at the hospital, focus on the task at hand
You have three jobs while at the hospital. The first one is to advocate for your parent. The second is to be present. The third is to catch any balls that may have fallen when an emergency landed your parent on the hospital bed. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
Advocacy in a hospital setting requires a difficult balancing act. The goal is to ensure that your parent gets the best possible outcome. Sometimes, that requires asking lots of questions. Sometimes, you may find yourself filling in the blanks in the medical history and bringing the nursing staff up to date. Don’t assume that the medical professionals know everything about your parent’s situation: as experienced and well trained as they are, doctors and nurses have to juggle dozens of patient histories and priorities.
Remember that hospitals can be scary and disorienting places, especially for an ailing elder. You are there to comfort your parent and be their eyes and ears. Listen to the medical staff. Take notes. Watch for signs of distress in your parent. If your parent has a difficult personality that isn’t improved by pain and discomfort, talk to the nurses about what you can do to help.
Finally, and especially if your parent was hospitalized after an accident or a sudden deterioration in health, you may have to take over the logistics of their household. Depending on the situation, that may involve paying bills, getting a dog walker, or preparing the home for your parent’s eventual return.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself
Taking care of an ailing parent can take a toll on you. Make sure that you carve out the space to rest. Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. Step out for fresh air breaks, even if all you do is simply walk around the hospital building. That will allow you to think clearly, ask the right questions, and be more present for your parent.