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Let’s Talk About It: What of the orphaned elderly?

Who looks out for seniors who have no family or friends to look out for them? A recent story that went viral caught my attention.

An 81-year-old terminally ill man in the U.S. had just returned home to after spending months in the hospital and rehab centre. He was weak and unable to shop for food. He was hungry and had no one to call to help him. So he called 911 and told the emergency operator that he needed someone to go to the store for him to buy food, his refrigerator was empty and he was hungry. Lucky for him the operator took it upon herself to buy him groceries and even prepared something for him to eat. She said she couldn’t stand the idea of anyone being hungry.

Here we have an 81-year-old man, terminally ill with cancer, spending months in hospital settings. How can he be home without staff verifying that he would be able to manage once he arrived home — with no discharge plan, no social worker? Who is keeping an eye out for our frail elderly who are all alone?

I am saddened but not totally shocked that this happens. I often visit clients on geriatric hospital units and it is not unusual to see patients staring at their food, not eating, and no one around to help. Those who may need assistance eating may get this service from a busy overworked nurse, who does not have the necessary time for the patient to complete their meal. When you have a support network, it’s easy to forget that some people just don’t have anyone to help and advocate for them.

Last year, when I spent the night in Emergency following a car accident, I observed an elderly lady nearby who barely spoke English or French. Fortunately there was a lovely nurse on duty and he assisted her after I alerted him that she needed to go to the washroom.

She then tried to dress herself, without success, and since no one was around I managed, with a fractured sternum, to help her get her top on. I wasn’t very alert, drowsy from painkillers, but the next thing I knew she was being told that she was going home. It was in the middle of the night, she was asked if she felt okay to go home and she seemed anxious to leave the hospital. So she was sent home by taxi. Had I been more functional, I would have intervened.

Some time ago, after a short stay in the hospital, my mother was ready for discharge. I was there when the physician told her she would be going home that day. She was quite weak but wanted to go home. I asked the doctor if he was aware that she lived alone in a house with 17 stairs. He then sent in a discharge nurse to arrange for rehab. Had I not been there, she would have been sent home.

We need to have watchful eyes for our orphaned elderly, who may not have people involved in their lives. The few times that I have seen seniors fall outdoors, there were strangers around willing to help. Good people are everywhere; we just need to be more active and look out for those who have no caring “watchdog.”

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