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Navigating Healthcare: Be sensitive to needs of aging population

If you are a regular column follower, you know that from time to time I interrupt my usual informative, educational column for a rant. The rant is usually precipitated by a situation or event that I have encountered in my daily life of working with seniors or disabled individuals.

This rant in fact is in response to watching multiple aging or unwell people trying to navigate a local parking lot. As I dropped off a client in the front of a doctor's office and left to park, encircling the lot before finally parking in the farthest spot — two levels down the lot — I watched as others, less fortunate mobility-wise, struggled with the lot.

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It seems that the building — occupied by multiple doctor offices, a lab and physical therapy practice — was full to brim with patients or visitors. As the lot filled, the only available spaces were down the levels, which were divided by stairs. As I watched various aging people, including one with oxygen, traversing the steps, I wondered why all the closest spots were taken and only the farthest were available. Apparently the staff in the building was occupying many of the prime spots.

The aging population is growing yearly with the baby boomers coming to age 65 and estimated to be 20 percent of the population by 2030 (72.1 million). As the aging population expands, it's time to for us all to begin to bridge the gap between the ages and develop some sensitivity to others.

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When I asked a class of college students approximately 18 to 21 years old what age is old? The response varied from 50 (ouch) to 80, but one astute student commented that we are all aging. This seems to be appropriate for all of us to remember.

The body endures wear and tear as we age. Unfortunately, chronic and acute health issues and decreased senses such as hearing and eyesight can affect the ability to interact with the world as we once did. Simple activities such as walking across the parking lot or getting up and down in a doctor's office can be overwhelming.

While we are throwing around terms such as "patient-centered care" in health care, we are not living up to the challenge. I recently sat in a doctor's office while an employee called a severely debilitated man to the desk. At first he didn't hear her. She called louder. It took him quite a while to get up and over to the desk. He sat down after she was finished asking him some questions. Just as he got resettled, she called him again to go back to get his vital signs taken. Then this struggling patient was sent back to the waiting room. Finally, after the third time he was called to get up, he was assumingly taken back to see the doctor. (Interestingly enough a cognitively impaired patient waiting to see the doctor was the only one to point out that perhaps the receptionist should have moved herself to accommodate this frail gentleman — loudly and bluntly!). I 100 percent agree. So much for "patient-centered care" in that particular office.

Finally, while sitting in a senior community dining room with a hearing-impaired gentleman, I watched as a young woman breezed past him speaking with her back to him. He was absolutely unaware that she was even speaking to him. He could not hear to understand what she asked of him. Often lack of response or inappropriate response to a question is interpreted as confusion or dementia when it is simply the inability to hear and understand.

I see around me on a daily basis the gap between the young and the old — the aging that all of us will someday encounter. In the age of "patient-centered," "resident-centered" or "person-centered care," we all need to step up and start walking the walk. That may mean walking the extra distance on the parking lot so that spaces are actually left for the patients, walking from behind the desk to register patients instead of expecting them to jump up and down multiple times, or maybe we could all slow down and take the time to notice that someone might not be able to see us or hear us.

We all are walking this life together and we are all heading in the same direction: aging. Awareness and education are the best hopes for bridging the gap between the aging and young and being more sensitive to the needs of others.

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