Preventing Hospitalizations and Re-hospitalizations

Hospitals are wonderful when you need them. There is no doubt, however, that it’s better to stay healthy to begin with. No matter the skill of doctors and nurses, a health crisis is difficult. It’s hard for older adults to bounce back. And many never quite bounce back to where they were before they were hospitalized.

Preventing unnecessary hospitalizations, therefore, is one way to help your aging parents stay healthy and independent for as long as possible.

And if a hospitalization has occurred, increasing the chance of a stable recovery is a great way to avoid the setback of a re-hospitalization.

Here are ways to help your loved one manage his or her health conditions effectively:

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Stay abreast of the medication schedule

Help your family member organize his or her medications so it’s easy to take the right ones at the right time. (See our article about managing medications.) Bring the medications to each doctor’s visit and make sure they are all still pertinent and that there are no conflicts. If a change in medication is advised, find out how that affects the others. Are there any conflicts? Any existing prescriptions that can or should be dropped? When should the new medicine be taken? How long should it be taken? Any side effects? Because medications change frequently, come up with a way to easily know/look up the most current schedule. See the suggestions to help you and your loved one keep track in our article about managing medications.

What method do you use to track medications? How do you keep the list up to date?
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See the doctor soon after discharge

Rehospitalizations are unfortunately very common. Although your loved one may have been released to home, that doesn’t mean he or she is totally “out of the woods.” While your relative is still in the hospital, find out what doctor(s) he or she should see afterward for follow-up. Request that the hospital forward records to all of them. Before you leave the hospital, call the doctor’s office to set up an appointment for the next week. You may need to be firm with the doctor’s receptionist. Explain that your loved one has just been hospitalized and needs to have a follow-up appointment to be sure he or she is not getting worse.

Which doctor is the most appropriate to see for a follow-up? The primary care physician? A specialist?
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Understand your loved one's condition

Once a diagnosis has been made, find out more about the illness. Ask the doctor to explain it so you understand what parts of the body are having trouble and why. If there are terms you don’t understand, ask for clarification. You can also look up your loved one’s condition on Medline Plus for seniors. This website is published by the National Library of Medicine. It has large type and is written in easy-to-understand language. You might also wish to look at our article about educating yourself.

Do you have questions about your loved one’s condition? What resources might you consult to help you find answers? The doctor? The discharge planner? The Internet?
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Know the red flags

Ask the doctor to group symptoms as “green light” for normal recovery, “yellow light” for early signs of a possible problem, and “red light” for a significant problem. Find out what to do and who to call in case of yellow light or red light symptoms.

Do you feel confident in your ability to spot a problem developing? If not, ask the health care staff for help.
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Support lifestyle changes

Many chronic conditions improve dramatically with changes in diet or exercise. Stopping smoking is one of the bigger lifestyle changes that can improve health and keep your loved one out of the hospital. But these changes are not easy. And nagging will only build resentment. In the spirit of collaboration, however, you can still support your loved one to make what changes he or she can. Even little steps add up. Consider reading our article about supporting a family member to change in “Your Changing Role.”

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Address common sources of injury

Falls and car accidents. Injury is a common cause of hospitalization for older adults, in particular, falls and automobile accidents. See our articles about preventing falls and driving safely.

Medications. Problems with medication frequently result in a fall and therefore injury. Taking too many pills, not the right ones, or taking them in the wrong combination can cause your family member to feel dizzy and lose balance. Helping him or her manage medications well is a great way to reduce the risk of injury and hospitalization.

Burns. Burns are an unexpected source of injury for seniors, but are in fact the second leading cause of injury death for older adults.

Burns can come from house fires—nearly half of which start in the kitchen—or from scalding water. Older adults have thinner skin, so they burn easier and do not recover as readily.

Reduced sensitivity in older adults can cause them not to react quickly when there is a problem, so they are exposed to the heat for longer and sustain a more serious burn. For instance, all it takes is 3 seconds of exposure to water that is 140° to cause a burn serious enough to require surgery.

Ways to prevent burns

  • Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Replace batteries regularly.
  • Set water heaters to no more than 120° (a bit less than the medium setting).
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.
  • Have an escape plan with alternate routes in case of a fire.
  • Never leave the kitchen when frying, boiling, grilling, or broiling food.
  • Turn pot handles so they face the back of the stove.
  • Wear short-sleeved shirts or close-fitting sleeves when cooking.
Have falls been a problem in the past? Do you have concerns about your relative’s driving? Are there precautions you can take about burns?
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