Medical visits companion
Supporting senior citizen independence
By Catrina McCulley Wagner
Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks in Springfield, has made it her business to check in on seniors.
Going to a doctor’s office, even for a routine examination, is enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure and spike anxiety levels. Remembering questions you want to ask, symptoms you’ve been having and medications you’ve been taking is difficult under these high-stress situations, even for the most astute patients. Now add to this stress 60-plus years of age, a generation gap, a communication barrier and quite probably a hearing deficit and what do you have? The risk for major medical issues to be forgotten, misdiagnosed or ignored completely.
Sara Lieber, a licensed social worker and owner of Senior Sidekicks in Springfield, saw this growing problem among senior citizens during her previous 20 years as owner of a private guardian service.
“As a private guardian, I did everything I could for people, but I always felt like I was bailing water because I got to people way too late to really help. If somebody is deteriorated enough that they require a guardian, they have major issues. They may be medical, financial, legal or all of the above. I felt helpless,” Lieber says.
After 20 years as a legal guardian, Lieber was given the opportunity to work with Medicare Part D, which was just becoming available. During her work with the program, she did a research project on senior citizens who were on Medicare Part D, but who didn’t speak English as a first language. That brought her into contact with senior citizens who were stronger, more mentally alert, were in better shape physically and who had a better grasp on their finances.
“I thought, ‘What if I were to work with this type of group and try to help prevent the deteriorating problems I’d seen in my previous work?’ I saw a need that had yet to be fulfilled. The need for an advocacy service for seniors that supported their desire to remain as independent as possible and also supported their family caregivers by providing them respite when their loved one(s) required a doctor’s visit,” Lieber says. And from there, she decided to establish her new business, Senior Sidekicks.
“It’s been a very successful business because I’ve been able to make a REAL difference to some of my clients,” Lieber says.
When Lieber meets a new client, she starts with an assessment of the senior in his or her home. “I care about my clients. I am more than a taxi service. I do not just pick up and drop off. I want to know my clients in their home. I want to see a baseline … the calm version of them, so I can be aware when something is off. The worst time to get to know somebody is during an emergency,” Lieber says.
During this assessment, Lieber gathers a medical background, a list of medications, a list of all doctors and family contact information. “I will discuss these items with the senior and family to assess the senior’s capacities. Some seniors may require a reminder call before appointments; I provide that, too.”
After an assessment is complete, Lieber makes herself available to take the senior to and from any appointment, whether that is a doctor visit, a day surgery, tests, eye or dental appointments. “I will also handle any medical-related task, such as appointment to adjust eye glasses, or hearing aides, filling prescriptions, physical therapy sessions or dialysis treatments,” says Lieber.
“The most valuable time I get with the senior is in the car rides to and from their appointment. When they first get into the car, I never turn music on; I just let the silence bloom. Pretty soon, they’ll start talking. I’ll ask how everything is going and what’s been going on. Sooner or later, I’ll start to hear things like aches, pains and worries they’ve been having. When I hear something of interest, I will say to them, ‘I think the doctor would be very interested to know that information.’ Then I will continue to chat with them and help them think of ways they can describe their issues to the doctor. And sometimes they will ask me to bring things up because it relieves some of the embarrassment for them if the issues are too private for them,” Lieber says.
During an appointment, Lieber will make observations and write everything down. “I keep notes from every single visit so when nurse ‘A’ takes vitals one week, and Nurse ‘B’ takes vitals the next week, I can flip back and see what they were before and discuss any changes with a doctor. I’m there to oversee everything, from start to finish. I see it from the perspective of the patient. Because I see the senior at home, I watch for use of unreported over-the-counter medications, spoiled food, or other conditions, which might affect the senior’s health. Doctors these days are so busy, they just don’t have the time to sit there and really ease some of this information out of their elderly patients.
“I take note of all the doctor’s instructions, orders and recommendations. Following the visit, I will assist the senior in carrying out the orders such as getting lab work and filling prescriptions. As the visit ends, I review the information with the senior to be sure they have heard and understood the doctor.”
After the appointment, Lieber contacts the senior’s adult child or caregiver and gives them a complete report of the visit. “I tell them what the doctor really said. And it’s not because seniors necessarily want to lie or hide things. If the doctor talks too fast, or has an accent, or the senior has a hearing problem, he or she just may not have understood everything. And sometimes there is just so much information that they couldn’t absorb it all. And that’s what I’m there for.”
And this service isn’t just for the seniors; it’s for the caregivers too. Senior Sidekicks takes some stress off the caregiver and gives them a bit of a break, knowing their loved-one is in good hands. “What I’ve come to see through the years is that caring for the elderly takes a enormous toll on the caregiver. There is a condition called Caregiver Syndrome, which lowers the immune system of the caregiver due to stress. I am not a doctor, but in my opinion, if we don’t do something to relieve the caregiver, we’re going to see more and more illnesses, premature aging and other kinds of negative affects due to the stress of it.
“If more people did what I do, we could keep people healthier longer. We can keep people out of nursing homes for longer periods. We can keep caregivers from dying before their time due to stress. But it’s new and a process. I am the first Medical Visits Companion in the country. And we need to get the word out about our vital role,” Lieber says.
For more information about Senior Sidekicks and Medical Visits Companions, call 217-787-5866 or visit http://seniorsidekicks.com.