NOBODY LOVES AN emergency room visit, least of all older patients. Everything about the ER experience can be more challenging for older adults. Time in the waiting room is harder to tolerate: You’re cold and they’ve run out of blankets. If you’re confused or disoriented, the harsh lighting, bursts of yelling and constant noise make it worse. If you’re unsteady on your feet and need the bathroom, navigating cramped ER quarters is difficult. If your joints are painful or your skin is thin and delicate, “resting” on a cot or stretcher is tough. If you’re alone, without a friend or family member, it’s frightening.
When older patients are admitted to the emergency department, vague-sounding symptoms (“I feel dizzy.” Or “I just don’t feel right.”) may actually be more serious than for someone younger. Common conditions like urinary tract infections can present themselves quite differently depending on age, and treatments may vary. For these reasons and more, some emergency departments are making changes to tailor their care and better meet the needs of older adults.
Geriatric emergency departments incorporate specially trained staff, assess older patients in a more comprehensive way and take steps to make the experience more comfortable and less intimidating. However, not all geriatric EDs are the same. Below, clinical experts spell out basic criteria for geriatric emergency departments and describe what patients and families should look for and expect.