Surgery Checklist for Seniors

Surgery Checklist for Seniors

As we get older, many things become a little more difficult. It might be harder to move around easily and without pain, thanks to aging bones or chronic conditions like arthritis. Muscle mass decreases as we age, no matter how much we exercise. We become more prone to falls and the injuries that can result from them (that’s where a medical alert device with fall detection can be so helpful). And if we are injured, it can be tougher to bounce back.

It’s also more difficult to go through and recover from a major surgery. It was only about 50 years ago when anyone over the age of 55 was considered very high risk for complications after surgery, and so doctors would try to avoid performing surgery or putting these patients under anesthesia.1 Today, however, surgeries are routinely performed on seniors—even the elderly who are over the age of 100-- and those aged 65 and older make up almost 40% of all surgeries in the U.S. today.2

But that doesn’t mean that major surgery for seniors is all smooth sailing. According to the Mt. Sinai Journal of Medicine, one in five of those aged 80 and older had at least one complication after surgery. The most common complications included problems with the urinary tract and the respiratory system.3

Though the vast majority of surgeries go just fine, there’s no doubt that there is some level of risk that goes up with age. Let’s take a look at what to expect if your doctor recommends surgery.

Is Surgery Really Necessary?

In some cases, surgery is the result of a true emergency and you really have no choice in the matter. Surgery to insert stents into arteries after a cardiac event, for instance, or repairing damage after a serious car accident are two examples of surgeries that must happen.

But in some cases, the surgery is a “would be nice to have” rather than a “must do this now” scenario. For instance, surgery to correct a hernia might not be necessary if you aren’t feeling any symptoms and your physical condition is stable, without worry that it might get worse. Talk to your doctor about whether surgery is necessary or if there are any other options.

If surgery is inevitable, in some cases you can choose the type of surgery you will have. For instance, does your condition mean you can have laparoscopic surgery? This means that small incisions are made and small surgical instruments are inserted through those incisions to perform the procedure. The result is often a shorter and easier recovery. This can be much gentler on the body than traditional, open surgery.

Trying Alternatives to Surgery

Your doctor will likely offer alternatives to surgery. Physical therapy is a potential option for those who are dealing with chronic back pain or issues with mobility. Some medications, such as muscle relaxants, can be a big help. Alternatives to surgery are especially important for the groups of elderly who are at highest risk for complications, including those who are frail or have dementia.4

One strong alternative to surgery is known as “watchful waiting.” This is ongoing monitoring of symptoms of a disease and not stepping in with more invasive methods until the situation becomes more serious. Men with prostate cancer, for instance, are usually great candidates for this sort of monitoring, as prostate cancer progresses very slowly.5 The same might be true for some elderly women with breast cancer; if it is a slow-moving type of cancer, it’s possible to avoid surgery with little to no consequences from the cancer itself.

But when the medical condition you’re facing begins to lead to a loss of independence and a drop in your quality of life, surgery could become a very good idea. It’s important to ask the doctor what the end goal is of the surgery, and how your quality of life might be affected by the surgery versus by not having it at all. To support independence and quality of life a senior medical alert system is a great option.

What a Good Surgical Outcome Looks Like

Major surgery can take several hours, after which you are in the intensive care unit for a few hours to a few days, depending on how well your body handles the surgery. You might be in the hospital for a few more days after that, or a few weeks. In some cases, such as with a hip replacement, you will need rehabilitation to move properly again; this might take place in a residential facility for a few weeks or months after the surgery, or you might be able to do it on an outpatient basis if you are recovering very well.

During that time, you will need to be careful to avoid complications. That includes avoiding falls – and if you do fall, calling for help right away can make a big difference. Before you have major surgery, it’s a great idea to get an emergency response solution so that you have help at your fingertips, 24/7.

You will also need to take your medications exactly as directed, care for the wound from the surgery by following the guidelines offered by the doctor, and turn to others – whether a family caregiver or a professional one – to help with the activities of daily living until you are back on your feet again.

How to Prepare for Major Surgery

If you and your doctor decide that yes, surgery is the best or only option, there are things you can do to prepare for a better outcome.

·        Ask plenty of questions. Knowledge is power and peace of mind. Understand exactly why you need the surgery, what the surgery will do for you, and how long it will take to recover from it. What will your life look like afterward? Is the surgery only the first step in a particular treatment, such as removing a tumor before chemotherapy begins? Or is it expected to alleviate pain and fix the problem, such as getting a hip replacement? What can you do to make the outcome better?

·        Stop smoking. Cigarettes and other smoking products can negatively affect every part of your body. The World Health Organization makes it clear that smoking even one cigarette can prevent your body from healing as effectively as it should. Those who quit smoking at least four weeks before surgery had a lower risk of complications and could better tolerate anesthesia.6

·        Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, work with your doctor to create a good diet plan that will allow you to lose some of the weight before surgery. If you are underweight, a diet that helps you gain to reach an ideal weight can help you better tolerate the procedure.

·        Get more exercise. Talk to your doctor about exercises that are appropriate for you, including those that will help strengthen your muscles and improve flexibility. Even a little exercise before surgery can help!

·        Get a medical alert pendant. Before you have surgery, it’s a good idea to get familiar with a medical alert pendant with fall detection. These senior life-saving alert systems are designed to detect a fall as it happens and alert a 24/7 monitoring center right away. Getting help as soon as possible after a fall, accident, or serious medical emergency can mean the difference between a good outcome and a poor one.

·        Prepare your home. If you haven’t implemented aging in place solutions yet, now is the time! Anything that can make it easier and safer to move around your home is a good idea. For instance, grab bars in the bathroom can assist you in moving around while you regain your strength. Bright lighting can help you see obstacles as you make your way from room to room. And some aging in place home modifications, like lift chairs or walk-in tubs, can make recovery from surgery much easier. 

·        Plan for the little things. You might be surprised by the help you need when you come home after a major surgery. For instance, standing up in the kitchen to prepare a meal might be impossible for a while; that’s where a service like Meals on Wheels can come into play. You might find it difficult to climb the stairs; that might mean you need a ramp to get into your home. A walker, cane, or wheelchair might be a good idea while you are recovering.

·        Keep a healthy mindset. It’s natural to be nervous or scared before any sort of medical procedure, especially major surgery. Talk to someone about what you’re feeling, whether it’s a family caregiver or a professional counselor. Dealing with the fear can help you stay optimistic, and that positive outlook can help you get through the tougher days immediately after the surgery is done.

·        Set proper expectations. What will happen to you after the surgery? What will rehabilitation look like? How long will it take before you return to your baseline level of mobility and functioning? Ask questions about recovery in the hospital, in rehab, and at home.

·        Create a living will. Though we don’t like to think about a bad outcome from surgery, it is very important to be prepared if things go wrong. Creating a living will and talking to your loved ones about your wishes well before the surgery begins can provide peace of mind.

Don’t Go It Alone

One of the biggest misconceptions about surgery is that you will bounce back quickly and be better than ever within a matter of weeks. But surgery is hard on the body, no matter the age, and even more difficult for seniors. Don’t plan to take care of your day-to-day life in the same way you did before the surgery – you will need some help in the immediate days and weeks following the procedure. Rely on friends, family, and caregivers to help you with everything from rehabilitation exercises to the basics of day-to-day life. And as you recover, let Alert1 Medical Alert Systems help you with a button alarm for strong peace of mind, safety, and protection.