Not too long ago I had the unique experience of needing the services of the emergency room of a major teaching hospital in New York City. (Don’t worry, I’m fine now.) During my thirty-four hours in the ER, I had the opportunity to observe the other patients crowded around on gurneys, in wheelchairs, or in chairs with canes and walkers resting nearby. The ER was overflowing (I was told later that their capacity is 35 and there were about 100 people waiting), and most of the people were older than 60. The doctors and nurses were incredibly busy and were doing their best to provide attention and comfort to everyone. Yet medical care wasn’t all some patients needed. The older people waiting alone needed an advocate. They needed someone to help them understand what the nurses and doctors were telling them and doing to them, someone to reassure them during the long wait to be seen by a doctor and/or to be admitted onto a hospital floor. More than several people were obviously very confused and agitated. They, like me, were waiting for hours, even days until they received care or were admitted to a room. But unlike me, they did not have family there to support them (my fiancé was with me), and they were not able to, or at least did not, verbalize their discomfort and need for food, water, or the bathroom.
After two nights, I was finally admitted to a cardiac surgery floor. I didn’t need cardiac surgery; it was just the only bed available. Every person who entered my room, from aides to meal servers, physical therapists, nurses, and doctors, was surprised to see someone under 60 on their floor. Each of them asked me, “What are you doing here?” I realized that they are so used to working with older people that someone obviously younger than 60 seemed out of place.
This whole episode got me thinking about the training hospital personnel receive in geriatrics. If everyone on the cardiac care unit expected to see a patient older than 60, and if most people in the ER were over 60, then shouldn’t all personnel receive training in geriatrics and care of the elderly? Yes, but this isn’t likely. Most medical schools do not have a geriatric curriculum or rotation, which is why the John A. Hartford Foundation provides grants to schools of medicine, nursing, and social work to help in developing more leaders and curriculum in geriatric education.