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5 Tips to Help Older Adults Stay Out of the ER

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Posted by Mark F. Obenrader, MD, PhD

It's more important than ever for seniors to do what they can to stay healthy as we deal with the spread of the novel 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19). Older adults — 65 years and older — are at higher risk for severe illness associated with COVID-19.

Avoiding trips to the ER may help seniors reduce the risk of exposure. But, accidents and illnesses happen. You should always get the medical care you or a loved one needs.

Preventing a trip to the ER where the risk of exposure to the 2019 novel coronavirus is high helps keep you or a loved one safer and healthier by staying at home. The following 5 tips are good for your health any time:

1. Stay in touch with your primary care physician

Your doctor knows your health history best and manages all the pieces that make up the "big picture" of your health. If you have a health condition, sometimes it can change unexpectedly. A call to your doctor, rather than a trip to the ER, allows you to explain your symptoms to your healthcare provider.

Maybe it’s a spike in blood pressure or blood sugars or an issue with your asthma. Whatever health concerns you’re dealing with, your primary care physician knows your medical history and can help make the right treatment recommendations for you. This often can be accomplished over the phone without a visit to the ER or your doctor’s office.

2. Stay on top of your medications

Taking medications regularly is important. Make sure you have what you need by asking your doctor for prescriptions that give you an extended supply of medication. Most insurance companies are allowing 90-day refills.

Also, you can avoid crowds and help reduce your exposure by getting your prescription by mail, delivery or picking up in the drive-thru.

3. Stay away from benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are medications commonly prescribed to treat insomnia and anxiety. Because they cause side effects such as dizziness, loss of coordination, confusion and sedation, they put older patients at higher risk for falls.

Each year, 3 million older adults are treated in the ER for fall injuries, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Fortunately, there are other ways to deal with insomnia that don't require medication:

  • Improve sleep habits — Reduce nighttime screen use (phones, tablets, and computers), light exposure and bedroom temperature, along with curtailing caffeine, alcohol and nicotine use.
  • Exercise — Research shows that exercise reduces insomnia just as well as using benzodiazepines.
  • Relaxation and cognitive behavioral therapies — Talk therapies improve sleep by changing bedtime habits and thoughts that keep you from falling asleep. Do not be afraid to talk with family members or someone you trust about your feelings or concerns.

Although newer non-benzodiazepine prescription sleep medications are available, these drugs can cause considerable side effects and still put you at significant risk for falls. Talk with your doctor about how to take precautions.

4. Stay alert for safety risks at home

Using a step stool to grab a plate out of reach might seem harmless but can be dangerous. Balance and coordination both decline as we age, increasing the risk of falls, even from a 3-inch stool.

Step stools aren't the only culprit: throw rugs, bathtubs, showers and uneven steps are hazards too. Have someone help you get out-of-reach items. Check your home and make safety changes to reduce trip and fall risks.

5. Stay active

Maintaining strength and balance are two of the best defenses against falls. Walking and stretching can help you achieve both. A bonus? Walking with a friend or family member (with appropriate physical distance between) is good medicine when social distancing leaves you feeling isolated.

Here are some ways you can get your steps in >

Mark F. Obenrader, MD, PhD

Dr. Obenrader is a primary care physician at Temple Family Medicine at Ft. Washington.

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