Trips to the ER can be tipping point for elderly

By JUDITH GRAHAM

Kaiser Health News

(AP) — Twice a day, the 86-year-old man went for long walks and visited with neighbors along the way. Then, one day he fell while mowing his lawn. In the emergency room, doctors put his broken arm in a sling.

Back at home, this former World War II Navy pilot found it hard to manage on his own but stubbornly declined help. Soon overwhelmed, he didn’t go out often, his congestive heart failure worsened, and he ended up in a nursing home a year later, where he eventually passed away.

“Just because someone in their 70s or 80s isn’t admitted to a hospital doesn’t mean that everything is fine,” said Dr. Timothy Platt-Mills, co-director of geriatric emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who recounted the story of his former neighbor in Chapel Hill.

Quite the contrary: An older person’s trip to the ER often signals a serious health challenge and should serve as a wake-up call for caregivers and relatives.

Research published last year in the Annals of Emergency Medicine underscores the risks. Six months after visiting the ER, seniors were 14 percent more likely to have acquired a disability — an inability to independently bathe, dress, climb down a flight of stairs, shop, manage finances or carry a package, for instance — than older adults of the same age, with a similar illness, who didn’t end up in the ER.

These older adults weren’t admitted to the hospital from the ER; they returned home, as do about two-thirds of seniors who go to ERs, nationally.

The lesson: illnesses or injuries that lead to ER visits can initiate “a fairly vulnerable period of time for older persons” and “we should consider new initiatives to address patients’ care needs and challenges after such visits,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Thomas Gill, a professor of medicine at Yale University.

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