My mother died recently, just shy of her 97th birthday. She was lucky to have many good last years. She lived in a pleasant assisted living facility, and both her cheerfulness and the warmth of the staff made her life rich. But she also suffered many needless indignities and much pain because of frequent hospitalizations that I attribute to problems inherent in the current health care system.
I know those of us still healthy don't like to think about this issue but I believe we must. We must fix it, and soon, so others don't suffer, and for our own self-interest.
Though my mother's facility had a good staff and clean and comfortable surroundings, the decision to send her off to the hospital often caused many problems for her and for her family. On occasion it was quite necessary. Other times it seemed unnecessary, but staff members explained to me that they were bound by state health care codes. My mother went to three different hospitals, many times, so I frequented many emergency rooms. In all three, I saw many other elderly patients. In emergency rooms, patients often linger long hours in discomfort. In one, my mother received no food or drink despite my constant requests for both. She was sent home in the cold winter weather with just a hospital gown. Not surprisingly, she contracted pneumonia and had to be sent to yet another hospital just one week later.
In all her hospitalizations she was subjected to many tests. My sister and I could never find out the results, much less talk to a doctor. Getting her discharged was always a major problem. She stayed many extra days because a doctor did not fill out the proper paperwork and/or her facility did not send someone to evaluate her for readmission. Not only was she unhappy not returning to her home, it entailed great cost to taxpayers because she was on Medicaid. I am not criticizing Medicaid in any way. It was a lifesaver for us all. Neither my sister nor I had the ability to fund her care. My father worked hard all his life at Bell Aircraft, but those monies were exhausted years ago. Yet inefficiency or just plain neglect caused unnecessarily extended stays.
Whatever made her hospital visits necessary caused great upheaval for her. After one stay early on, she was no longer able to navigate with her walker and had to use a wheelchair. After another, she had a urinary track infection. Then there was the pneumonia.
I often wondered if some of the tests requested for a 96-year-old were really necessary, but since I am not a physician I was never sure. Though physical therapy is a wonderful addition to the array of treatments for elderly patients, the sight of my mother being dragged screaming in pain from her hospital bed by physical therapists sears my memory. At that time she was dying of bone cancer.
Luckily the nurse in charge of her care assisted me in ending this kind of torture. It seemed a major battle to keep her from further testing and treatments when her wish was for no additional invasions to her body. When hospice became involved in her care, that goal was gratefully achieved.
Some folks rail against health care reform. Some folks think their health care is just fine right now. But those of us assisting elderly family members know the status quo guarantees those of us who may live to a ripe old age a frightening future.
Linda Drajem, a retired educator who lives in Buffalo, has seen firsthand the need for health care reform.