Why You Should Get to Know Your Aging Parents’ Doctor Now
According to geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, co-author of The Gift of Caring, the best time to build a relationship with your parents’ doctor is while they’re healthy. It might seem awkward or odd to accompany healthy parents to their checkups, but doing so lays the groundwork for communication and care management later on. Here are some tips to get started now, so you can provide better support for your parents if they have a health crisis later on.
What about HIPAA?
You’re probably already familiar with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), the federal rules on patient privacy and confidentiality, and you may wonder if it means your parents’ doctor can’t discuss their health with you. HIPAA allows healthcare providers to share patient information with their family caregivers unless patients state that they don’t want that information shared. So as long as your parents give their permission, you’re allowed to accompany them to doctor appointments and ask questions while you’re there.
Of course, showing up is just part of the process. Your relationship with your parents’ doctor and your role in helping manage their care, will depend on your parents’ preferences and the state of their health.
While your parents are still healthy
This is when Eckstrom recommends meeting your parents’ primary care physician or geriatrician, although she acknowledges that most of us don’t do so. Many of us meet our parents’ doctor for the first time when they’re having a problem. In that case, we’re dealing with worry, fear, and other strong feelings while coping with a new caregiving role and getting to know the physician. Supporting your parents through health problems is easier if you’ve already met the doctor and understand his or her communication style. You’ll also already know how forthcoming your parents are with their doctor, and you’ll be more comfortable asking questions about your parents’ care.
When your parents have health issues
If you’re helping your parents manage health or memory problems, you’ll want to develop your note-taking skills. One of the most important ways you can help your parents is by writing down their doctor’s instructions on diet, exercise, medication, and other care instructions. You can also put yourself in charge of bringing a list of all your parents’ medications and supplements to each doctor’s appointment, to review which ones are still necessary, which ones can be changed or stopped, and which ones may conflict with each other.
Before, during, and after visits with your parents’ doctor
The United Hospital Fund’s Family Caregiver Guide includes a long list of tips for family caregivers who attend doctor appointments with a parent or spouse. Before the appointment, write out your parents’ medication list, ask them what issues they want to discuss with the doctor, and mention things you want to ask about. Decide before you go whether your parent wants you in the room during the exam or while discussing sensitive topics with the doctor. You may want to be in the room for only part of each visit, especially if your parent is in good health.
At the doctor’s office, listen, take notes, and ask questions if there are things you don’t understand. If you think your parents aren’t being forthcoming with their doctor about symptoms or mobility—for example, if they don’t mention crushing fatigue or bouts of dizziness you’ve observed—you can ask about those symptoms.
After the visit, ask your parents if their questions were answered, whether they felt your presence was helpful, and if there’s anything they’d like you to do differently next time. Share your notes with your parents so you’re all on the same page for caregiving and for the next doctor visit. The sooner you start this routine with your parents, the more natural it will be later on when it’s crucial to their wellbeing.