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Medical Intel

Apr 16, 2019

Many adults are caregivers for elderly relatives.  Dr. Cesar Torres discusses common problems these caregivers face and his best tips to keep elderly loved ones safe.



Intro: MedStar Washington Hospital Center presents Medical Intel where our healthcare team shares health and wellness insights and gives you the inside story on advances in medicine.

Host: We’re speaking with Dr. Cesar Torres, a geriatric and house-call doctor at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Torres.

Dr. Torres: My pleasure.

Host: Today we’re discussing advice for adults caring for older relatives. Dr. Torres, in terms of safety, what are some of the key areas of concern that caregivers often worry about?

Dr. Torres: I think the number one area would be falling. Falls can lead to very life altering fractures, specifically fractures of the hip. And, study after study has shown that a hip fracture will have significant effect on mortality rates. Your odds of dying within the first year of a hip fracture are, unfortunately, quite high. Falls, household accidents - the ability to communicate with loved ones in case of a household accident is something that a lot of caregivers worry about. But if I had to rank it, I would put the risk of a fall as the number one thing that really keeps up everybody at night.

Host: Is this concern just for seniors with medical conditions such as dementia or heart disease?

Dr. Torres: No. All seniors are at risk for it. There are a lot of different reasons for this. There are sensory inputs into increasing the fall risk, such as loss of vision or impaired vision. There’s a loss of proprioception - by that I mean balance. There’s a loss of muscle strengths, so the elder will literally not be able to lift their feet high enough to clear very simple obstacles in their path and so they end up falling or tripping. There’s also the problem with improper medication or over-medication, which we, unfortunately, as physicians, sometimes contribute to and then we have to be mindful of, to try to avoid and mitigate the risk.  

Host: What would be the risks involved with over-medication?

Dr. Torres: Well, some medications, and there are over-the-counter medications also that are guilty of this, predispose elderly patients to sedation, dizziness, and these increase the fall risk. By that, medications like over-the-counter sleep aids, Benadryl, antihistamines - they can impair the elderly patient’s ability to manage their household environment.

Host: What can seniors and their caregivers do to reduce the risk of falls at home?

Dr. Torres: I think the biggest thing I see, in doing house calls, is reducing the amount of clutter in the house - throw rugs, items just left on the floor. All of these are potential obstacles and they can lead to a very bad fall that can result in a fracture. Lighting - improving the lighting for seniors is also a great help. Making sure that they’re wearing their glasses. Some folks really do not like wearing glasses. Having handrails. Trying to minimize the need for an elder to go up and down stairs - moving them onto a single floor may also prevent a fall.

Host: They seem like really common sense type things that anybody should follow.

Dr. Torres: But, they get overlooked because they are so common. Sometimes you need that person who comes in to your home and is taking care of your mother or father and she has to point it out and that little bit of added emphasis leads to a change.

Host: How do the geriatrics and house-call experts at MedStar Washington Hospital Center help patients and families care for their aging loved ones at home?

Dr. Torres: Well, since we travel to the home, we have a good sense of what are the environmental obstacles in the home. As part of our program, we’ll do environmental assessment and we’ll make specific recommendations, making sure that all the sensory inputs are optimized for the senior also go a long way. And we can make referrals to eye doctors, ophthalmologists, otolaryngologists, and they can help with making sure the senior’s sight and hearing are improved to the maximal point that they can.

Host: Are there any additional general tips that you would give to families who are caring for aging loved ones at home?

Dr. Torres: I would foster open communication as to what your loved one needs help with, okay? Don’t just assume that they’re doing OK because they’re not calling you for help. A lot of times what we see is that the elder will do everything they can NOT to bother their family members. And, the more open the communication, the more likely you are to know when there is a problem. And I think that goes a long way. Another safety issue that seniors and their families face is the issue of driving. The ability to drive does change with age, but just because a person is of a certain age, that does not necessarily mean that they can’t drive. But the issue is one that needs to be explored as the person ages. Don’t just assume because the person just renews their license automatically that they can actually drive. There are laws - they vary from state to state - that can help but the family should periodically check in. Reaction time diminishes as the person ages. There are the visual changes. There are the hearing changes. There can be significant osteoarthritis of the cervical spine that prevents the elder from turning their head. Driving safety is something that really needs to be a top priority - not just for the patient themselves but for the society at large. The District of Columbia, fortunately after a certain age, there are requirements that the driver undergo vision testing as well as getting the authorization to drive from their primary care physician. So, that’s something I am in favor of.

Host: What are some of the more common conditions you’re seeing in these older adults as you’re going out on house calls?

Dr. Torres: Chronic pain from degenerative joint disease such as arthritis. Hypertension. Diabetes. Obesity. Mood disorders. Sleep apnea. Chronic kidney disease. Heart attack and stroke.

Host: So, when you’re making your house calls and seeing your aging parents, are you seeing issues with medication adherence?

Dr. Torres: Unfortunately, we can. We try to reduce that as much as possible by physically, visually looking at each one of their pill bottles. And, that’s something that, I’m happy to say, that’s becoming much more of a common practice. When the elderly patient comes in to see their primary care physician, they should be instructed to bring all their medicines in their favorite paper bag. We call it the brown bag. The major problem with adherence is the difficulty with remembering complicated medication regimens. Medications that have to be taken three times a day, generally, are extremely difficult. So, yes, adherence is an issue. The more that the physician can simplify the regimen, the better the outcome will be. Some of the tips I can offer: pill boxes can be a help. Any form of reminder, be it visual or even auditory - I mean, there are lots of apps out there that can be programmed to give reminders to take medications. But generally, just being aware that the loved one is on some type of medication regimen. Generally, that’ll spin off into the appropriate technique to make sure that they are getting their medications.

Host: Could you share the story of a family that maybe had a particularly stressful time at home that you were able to help through your program?

Dr. Torres: A patient who was living by herself. The apartment was less than optimal. She had no handicap accommodations. And, I basically, through a series of letters, we were able to help her move into a handicap accessible apartment with more than reasonable accommodations. And, she had been experiencing some mild depression that was starting to impact her adherence to the medication regimens. But that improved dramatically once she was able to move and that was just on the basis of the move itself, into a much safer environment, a much more friendly environment.

Host: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Torres.

Dr. Torres: My pleasure.

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