The Call

by Phyllis Larkin, Psy.D
Geriatric and Family Psychologist


You’re going about your life, and then the call or text comes: Mom or Dad is in the hospital and you have to make decisions quickly.

Here is some practical advice that will help you determine what to do and when to do it.

Don’t rush to the airport yet. Give yourself time to gather information and digest the information you receive. Don’t expect logical thinking from yourself or others until the full scope of the situation is known. If you rush in and start making decisions, other family members may feel “swooped-in-on” and resentful: “Sure, now you come home from your glamorous European life. I have been here dealing with the day-to-day grind…..”

Assess the situation. Get as much medical information as possible to find out what your loved one’s status is: physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Are they in ICU, CCU, post-op? If you are not physically present, medical professionals won’t be able to speak with you without your loved one’s permission, usually in writing. Physicians are very busy and may not be available in your time zone. Contacting the hospital social worker can be very helpful. The social worker can be an advocate for your loved one and help you get the information you need. After the initial crisis, you will need to know your loved one's ability to perform Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) after discharge. (Examples of ADLs are cooking, eating, meds, bathing, dressing, shopping, bill-paying etc.) This will help you determine what type of care your loved one will need after their hospital stay and how long you may need to be available.

Figure out where you fit in. Identify your area of expertise. Finances? Running the household? Hands-on caregiving? Care coordination? Consider the possibility that you may be of more help in sending money, coordinating care, or paying bills online, etc. If you decide to go home, it may be better to wait and help out after Mom is released from skilled nursing and needs someone at home with her. This will give you a chance to get time off, coordinate schedules and be more effective on the ground once you’re stateside.

Ask for help. Hire or call in favors for areas that you can’t fulfill. “I can pay the bills online. Can Sally talk to the doctors?” “I can call/Skype every day at 8 a.m. to make sure Mom is taking her meds and out of bed. Can you check on her weekly?” “Can Dad’s neighbor across the street stop by and pick up the mail? Can she let me know if Dad is lonely, in pain, or needs anything?"

Critical information. Keep all data on a thumb drive or a secure cloud account so that it is easily accessible from anywhere. An old smartphone without internet access can be a great place to store passwords and financial data. Critical information includes doctors' contact information, hospital contact information, Medicare and SSI information, financial and legal documents, POLST (Physicians Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment), Advanced Directives, medical files, friends and family contact information, banking information, and monthly bills.

Once you have the information, talk with a trusted friend or family member and discuss your options. Be honest about what you can and can’t do.

A ticket for the next plane out may not be the best solution. A flight the next day or even the next week might be better.