ER visits can signal beginning of decline for seniors, even when they're not admitted

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A trip to the emergency room can signal the onset of serious health challenges in the elderly, even when the patient is not admitted.

Six months after visiting the ER, seniors in one study were 14% more likely to have acquired a disability affecting activities of daily living than older adults of the same age, with a similar illness, who didn't end up in the ER.

Like most seniors, those included in the Annals of Emergency Medicine research returned home after their treatment.

“Illnesses or injuries that lead to ER visits can initiate “a fairly vulnerable period of time for older persons” and “we should consider new initiatives to address patients' care needs and challenges after such visits,” study co-author Thomas Gill, M.D., professor of medicine, epidemiology and investigative medicine at Yale University, told Kaiser Health News.

A report issued by the health publication Thursday explores how emergency rooms, researchers and other caregivers are attempting to keep seniors physically active and emotionally engaged following a visit for emergency care.

Cynthia Brown, M.D., professor and division director of gerontology, geriatrics and palliative care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said ER visits often precipitate declines that lead to “a poorer quality of life, nursing home placement and mortality.”

Now, hospitals are being encouraged to educate medical staff in geriatric care; assess seniors for risk; screen older adults  for cognitive concerns, falls and functional limitations; and refer to them to community agencies for help.

Starting in February, the American College of Emergency Physicians is launching an accreditation program for emergency rooms, requiring recipients to provide walkers, canes and food and drink and make physical changes to emergency departments that better suit older patients.