After 25 years as an emergency physician, I left the ER and started a housecall-only practice for Medicare patients. For the past four years, I have served as a primary care physician, visiting my patients where they live — in their homes and apartments, their assisted living facilities, or their residential care homes.
Although some of my patients are reasonably healthy, most are frail and weak. My oldest patient is 107 and still walks herself to her meals each day. A significant number have such advanced dementia that they don’t remember who I am. Some can no longer speak or communicate in any way. I also routinely care for hospice patients, as they approach the end of life.
Despite all these adversities, my happiest patients are those with family and friends who care about them. These lucky seniors get regular phone calls, frequent visits, and even get taken out of their facilities or homes for a simple meal or ride to the beach.
Which brings me to the purpose of this article: My saddest patients are the ones who never get visited. Their Thanksgivings are spent with caregivers, or worse, alone. Their Christmases are lived vicariously through the television or perhaps distant memories. The facilities where they live do a terrific job to brighten up their lives, but to be honest, they cannot substitute for a loving friend or family member.
Yesterday, I asked a couple of my patients what their plans were for Christmas.
“Nothing,” was the sad reply.
Seniors typically do not want to burden their families, knowing that to be picked up for a holiday celebration is no simple task. It can be inconvenient and troublesome. Wheelchairs may not fit easily in the car or the house. Food and drink may have to be modified. Schedules may have to reflect their shortened endurance to stay awake or away from their facility. As a result, many of my patients suffer in silence as their loved ones celebrate without them. But I see the sadness in their eyes, and have learned to carefully skirt the details of their holiday celebrations.
Could I put out a plea?
If you have friends or loved ones who live in a senior facility, or lives alone in their own home — make sure that they are included in your life during this holiday season. It can be as simple as joining them for a meal at their facility. Or taking them out for a drive to see the Christmas lights. Or best of all, picking them up and having them join your own celebration.
For many of my patients, the pleasures of life that we take for granted are no longer available.
Reading? Vision is too poor.
Music? Can’t hear it.
A walk outside? Far too frail to go more than a few feet.
But to simply sit with family or friends, basking in the laughter and love, is something that brings a light into their lives that will brighten their world far after the visit has ended. Cards and candy and gifts are nice, but the gift of time together is priceless. Please recognize your incredible potential to elevate a senior’s spirits simply by showing up in their life.
Steven Sainsbury is a local physician and resident of San Luis Obispo. He worked in the emergency room at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center for 20 years before starting a housecallonly practice for seniors.