How to Talk to the Doctor About Your Aging Parent's Health

You will always be your parents’ child. However, as a parent ages and their health declines, your care-giving roles reverse. The same parent who cared for you until you reached adulthood may now require your assistance. Understandably, the dynamics of the role reversal can be difficult to accept for both parties involved.

Your aging mother or father may not want to listen to your advice or instructions concerning their health, and you may find it difficult to disseminate the guidance to help the parent stay as healthy as possible. Nevertheless, by collaborating with your parent’s primary care physician, you can help ensure that they receive instructive guidance in a manner that they can willingly receive. A parent may not want to listen to your instructions, but like many older people, your loved one may highly respect a physician.

Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your parent’s doctor becomes imperative. However, you may not know how to move forward with developing an ongoing conversation with the physician primarily responsible for your parent's care. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Obtain the legal authorization.

Without proper authorization, your parent’s doctor may not feel comfortable discussing the details of the patient's medical information with you due to the constraints of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The physician needs to know that you have the legal authority to make the healthcare decisions concerning your parent.

Provide the doctor with copies of the durable medical power of attorney or the signed healthcare proxy, so the medical professional has proof of your authorization. Additionally, work with your parent to develop a list of the people who should be allowed to have access to their medical information. Many physicians ask elderly patients to sign a consent form that permits the doctors to speak to a designated family member even when the patient is not present. This protects the confidentiality of the patient’s information and empowers the aging person to have some sense of control over whom their physicians can speak with.

Inform the rest of the family.

Since you are the designated person who will be communicating with your parent’s physician, be sure to inform the rest of your family of the arrangement. This can minimize any confusion concerning who will be contacting the doctor, especially if you have siblings. It can be time-consuming and counterproductive for the physician to attempt to answer inquiries from multiple people. 

If your family members have concerns, ask them to communicate them to you, and you can include them in your inquiries to the doctor. 

Accompany your parent during visits to the doctor.

Attending the doctor’s appointments gives you the opportunity to share your contact information with the physician, ask questions and stay abreast of changes to your parent's medical care plan. You can also discuss methods of contacting the doctor between appointments. In addition to receiving phone calls, many physicians are willing to accept emails and text messages.

Send a list of questions beforehand.

Before the scheduled appointment, send a list of questions and concerns that you would like the doctor to address during that visit. Here are a few questions to consider posing to the physician:

  • Could you explain the diagnosis?
  • What changes can be expected, mentally and physically?
  • Is lab work required today?
  • What side effects are associated with the prescribed medications?
  • Do the medicines increase my parent’s risk of falling?
  • Are there any foods or supplements that should be avoided due to adverse interactions with the prescription medicines?
  • What physical activities can be performed for exercise? What should be avoided?
  • Are any follow-up tests required? If so, how should my parent prepare?
  • When will test results be available? Should I call, or will we be contacted with the results?
  • For what date would you like to schedule the next appointment?

Share your parent’s information among all of the doctors involved.

If your parent is also visiting a specialist, make sure that the current list of prescription drugs is shared with the new physician. Although you may assume that your parent’s primary physician and the specialist are consistently collaborating, that may not be the case. By providing each doctor with the pharmacy contact number and a list of your parent’s medications, you can help avoid problems with adverse drug interactions.

You can also request that the specialist send a copy of the medical notes from the visit to your parent’s primary physician.

Request a specialist from the same medical group.

To make it easier to keep track of your parent’s medical information, even when he or she visits a specialist, request a specialist within the same medical group. The sharing of information between doctors who practice in the same group can be much easier. Additionally, insurance participation is likely the same among physicians who belong to the same practice.

Keep a notebook.

Taking notes during your parent’s medical appointments is important. However, it can be difficult to keep track of the recorded information if you write it on single sheets of paper. Instead, use a notepad, tablet or cell phone to record information. Having the notes in one place can help keep them organized and within reach when you need them.

Be sure to record health concerns that may arise between visits. Being able to advise the doctor of the frequency, severity and duration of symptoms can aid the physician in providing an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment options. Also, having the date of the first appearance of the symptoms can help the physician trace the cause. Sometimes, a change in mood, behavior or appetite may coincide with changes in medication.

Don’t save all of the problems that you have noticed for a single visit.

Although you would probably like to address all of the health concerns that you have concerning your parent during a single visit, this may not be practical. Your parent’s physician will likely be prepared to discuss important issues during the appointment, but it is important to remain aware that the doctor does have time constraints. Therefore, try to stick to the concerns that you have recorded. This will help you avoid bunny trails that could make it difficult for the physician to answer your inquiries at once.

Different types of doctor’s visits are sometimes coded for insurance payment based on the complexity and time required for the appointment. Your parent’s doctor will likely want to stay within the guidelines of the coded service during the visit.  

Switch physicians if communication remains poor.

If your parent’s doctor is consistently difficult to reach or does not wish to communicate with you in a beneficial manner, you may need to switch physicians. This is often a last resort. However, if you find it difficult to effectively communicate with the physician under normal circumstances, the communication is not likely to improve during a health crisis.

Providing care for your aging parent can be rewarding and challenging. You have the opportunity to give back to a loved one who has made many sacrifices to ensure your wellbeing. Yet, ensuring that your mother or father receives the medical instruction and guidance that they need can be tough. Through successful collaborations between you and your parent’s physician, you can resolve gaps in communication and help your parent receive the best care possible.