Many people dream of retirement—time for travel, precious moments with family or just taking it easy. Some take classes or seminars to prepare for retirement; others talk with their financial advisers and accountants. But few of us take the time to plan for hospitalization. After all, who wants to think about ill health, let alone the scary prospect of spending time in the hospital?
Yet, as we age, the chance that we—or someone we love—will be hospitalized goes up significantly. Consider this: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those aged 65 and older account for 13 percent of the U.S. population but 37 percent of hospital discharges and 43 percent of days of care.
So, whether we like or not, the odds of going to the hospital go up as we age. It might be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and say, “I will worry about it when the time comes.”
And it might be fine to put off the worry. But don’t put off planning. There are things you can do to prepare in advance for hospitalization for yourself or a loved one, just as you might participate in a fire drill or train for some other emergency. The better prepared you are, the more successful you will be in getting what you need in the hospital for yourself or someone you love.
Over the years my husband has been hospitalized many times. Along the way I have learned that being prepared—like a good Boy or Girl Scout—can go a long way in making the best of a difficult situation.
Here are some concrete steps you can take at any time to be ready just in case you or a loved one must go to the hospital:
- Get organized. Keep a copy of all your medications and a summary of your medical history in your wallet. Have the same information ready for your loved one. You can go high tech and store the information on a smart phone app or on a USB drive that doubles as a medical bracelet. And you can get information online about creating a File of Life that allows you to store important medical information for emergency responders.
- Have your legal life in order. Make sure you have up-to-date wills, advance medical directives, durable power of attorney and/or Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders that reflect your medical wishes and those of your loved one. Out-of-date documents do you no good. Likewise, ones locked away in a safety deposit box may not be helpful either.
- Talk to your primary care doctor. While you are more likely to see a hospitalist than your own doctor in the hospital, it is useful to have a conversation about hospitalization with the doctor who knows you best. Ask if s/he recommends a specific hospital for your care, if there are particular pros and cons you should know about and even if there is a hospitalist you might request if needed. Also make sure your doctor knows the details about your end-of-life decisions.
- Do your own research. Go online and check out ratings of hospitals in your area. A good place to start is Medicare.gov. Other helpful sources are Consumer Reports, Joint Commission, Leapfrog Group and U.S. News & World Report. Look at rankings for factors such as patient satisfaction, readmission rates and hospital-acquired infections. It is also worth talking to family and friends who have had personal experiences in different hospitals.
- Check out your insurance coverage. Find out what your health insurance will cover and, equally important, what it won’t. If you are on Medicare, Part A will cover your hospitalization if you are formally admitted to the hospital. If you are being seen for observation, but not actually admitted, you are considered an out-patient; coverage is not the same. Either way, you don’t want sticker shock at the end of a hospital stay.
- Have an emergency plan ready to go. Decide in advance how you will get to the hospital if you need to drive. For example, what route is best in rush hour? Who will take care of your pets in an emergency? Does that person have a key to your home? Are there others dependent on you? Who will provide their care if you aren’t available?
- Have a conversation about palliative care. Talk openly to your family, especially the person who has your durable power of attorney, about your end-of-life wishes. Tell that person what is important to you in decision making. Is controlling pain your primary goal? Do you want to stay alive as long as possible? What makes your life worth living? These and other factors will help you, your loved one and your doctors make the best decisions under difficult circumstances.