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As the U.S. Aging Population Rises, Stony Brook Geriatric Experts Offer Tips for Families

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 Geoffrey O’Connell, LCSW, Geriatric Care Planner, Stony Brook Medicine and Suzanne Fields, MD, Chief of the Division of General, Geriatric and Hospital Medicine, Stony Brook Medicine

As the U.S. Aging Population Rises, Stony Brook Geriatric Experts Offer Tips for Families

STONY BROOK, NY-October 1, 2015–Adults 65 years or older currently represent more than 14 percent of the U.S. population, about one in every seven Americans, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. And by 2060, it’s estimated that there will be approximately 98 million older Americans, more than twice the amount in 2013, the last year data was available.

As more of us have older relatives in our lives, geriatric experts at Stony Brook Medicine have provided tips and other guidance to help people care for aging parents and other relatives — including how to broach sensitive topics such as giving up driving, considering a move to an assisted living or nursing facility, when an examination by a geriatrician can help, and more.

According to Suzanne Fields, MD, Chief of the Division of General, Geriatric and Hospital Medicine, one of the most common questions she’s asked is when and how to offer more support to older relatives. She encourages family members to respect an older relative’s desire to live alone, but if that no longer seems safe, then to look into community services that can help someone live on her  own, or start a family discussion about possibly hiring a home health aide or considering a move to an assisted living facility. “Safety is paramount,” says Dr. Fields.

“If someone shows difficulty with daily activities, such as paying bills or preparing meals, or forgets to turn off the stove or overflows the bathtub, these are tell-tale signs that the elder needs help,” says Dr. Fields.

Other signs that an older person may need regular assistance include:

  • Failing health, such as a diagnosis of renal failure, heart disease, or another serious chronic medical problem
  • Slowing down noticeably
  • Confusion and memory loss

When to give up driving is a sensitive topic that often arises with older adults. “Especially here in Long Island, where our cars represent our independence, whether to give up driving can be hard to talk about,” says Geoffrey O’Connell, LCSW, Geriatric Care Planner, Stony Brook Medicine. He urges families to start the discussion before an accident occurs. Having several family approach the older person together, and asking the person’s physician to put a recommendation against driving in writing, can help.

Red flags that indicate someone may no longer be a safe driver include:

  • Getting lost or having a hard time finding his way home
  • Accidents
  • A diagnosis of dementia or another medical condition (e.g., Glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, hearing loss, arthritis) that causes sensory or mobility deficits.

“Needing help represents a loss of independence for many, so these discussions should be broached gently to minimize resistance,” says Dr. Fields.

Above all else, Dr. Fields recommends establishing open communication with older relatives. “One of the first questions that should be asked is about the person’s goals – that is, if they want to live as long as possible, maintain mobility and function or prioritize comfort. This is an important conversation for clinicians to have as well – they need to identify what an individual wants so they can design care that is patient-centered.”

Setting expectations is important for social services support as well. “I often start by asking a family how they think I can help them,” says Mr. O’Connell. He then helps connect them to services that best suit their needs [see box above]  – from making a referral to a grief counselor for someone who’s lost a spouse, to arranging tours of assisted living or nursing home facilities, to providing education on government assistance they may qualify for, and much more.

“From my experience, the single best thing adults can do for older parents or relatives is to check-in with them regularly – and to do so without being intrusive. We want to prevent older adults in our community from becoming isolated — too often, the elderly become homebound because of illnesses or because of depression after losing a spouse,” says Mr. O’Connell. “We can refer them to elder daycare programs that will help connect them to social groups and provide stimulation – many of which provide transportation. And we help introduce them to technology – such as Skype or FaceTime – that can help families stay in touch from afar.”

To schedule an appointment with a Stony Brook geriatrician, please call (631) 444-4630 or click here.

 Additionally, Douglas K. Hoverkamp, MD, a Stony Brook Medicine psychiatrist, heads the Department of Psychiatry at Eastern Long Island Hospital, where he and his colleagues regularly care for older adults with depression and other mental health issues. Their work is part of the Geriatric Center of Excellence at Eastern Long Island Hospital, which is currently pursuing an affiliation with Stony Brook University Hospital (click here to read more).

To read a recent Long Island Pulse magazine article, where Dr. Fields and Geoffrey O’Connell provided advice for people caring for elderly relatives, click here.

What is a Geriatrician and How Stony Brook Geriatricians Can Help?

 A geriatrician is a primary care physician who specializes in caring for older adults. For healthy seniors, geriatricians can help them age successfully through preventive care.

 For older adults who seem frail or have health issues, geriatricians can assess their level of function and metal status — screening for impaired walking ability, fall risk, depression, weight loss, cognitive/memory loss, and functional decline.

 For Long Islanders, Stony Brook geriatricians help patients and their families learn about services throughout Suffolk County and beyond that are available to assist older adults. As Stony Brook Medicine’s Geriatrician-in-Chief Dr. Suzanne Fields says, “A vast array of services are available – from free community services, to private pay, and more,” e.g., meal delivery services, hospice, respite care, social and medical model day programs and facilities where an older person can take a safe driving test.

 Additionally, special services are often available for veterans. The Long Island State Veterans Home, which is adjacent to Stony Brook University Hospital, offers both medical model day programs and nursing home care for veterans. Five Stony Brook geriatricians provide on-site care for long-term residents of this facility.

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