Adult children of aging parents often hold their breath for the dreaded call that Mom or Dad is in the hospital. Something as simple as a fall, a surgery or even the flu can be the event that precipitates crisis mode and then caregiving mode. When this happens, there are often countless questions left unanswered and many important decisions to be made.

Being prepared is obviously ideal, but a heart attack, stroke or infection can happen at any time. Families often fail to plan and are therefore caught off guard when an emergency strikes. It can be difficult for everyone to process their emotions, absorb information and make rational choices. Use this list to help you navigate the more immediate decisions during a hospital stay and prepare for the longer-term solutions that must be put in place before and after discharge.

What to Do During and After a Senior’s Hospitalization

  1. Establish open communication with the hospital staff.
    You will no doubt have lots of questions about your loved one’s health status. Unfortunately, after a medical emergency, most people find it difficult to know what to ask, who to talk to and when to pose these questions. Depending on the scenario, things may be a little hectic at first, especially immediately before and after admission. To begin, identify your loved one’s primary hospital doctor and the names of any specialists on their care team. The primary physician is in charge of coordinating your loved one’s care and the staff members providing it. The case manager, charge nurse or nurse manager should be able to give you this information.
    Understand that it can be difficult to meet with the busy primary physician and get up to speed on your loved one’s condition. Request a meeting but take the time to write down any questions you have beforehand so that you don’t forget them. Afterwards, it is usually easier to communicate with your loved one’s nurses for status updates and answers to emerging questions. They’re responsible for patients’ day-to-day care and are very familiar with their conditions. If the nurse on duty cannot provide certain answers, then aim to speak to the doctor directly.
    It’s important to advocate for your loved one when they may be unable to do so for themselves because of pain, medications or even a loss of consciousness or competence. Interacting regularly with the care team will help ensure that they receive attentive, high-quality care. Go to as many care meetings with your loved one as possible, and if there’s a medical term or concept you do not understand or an issue that hasn’t been addressed, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification or better follow-through.
  2. Determine how your loved one will pay for their care.
    Medical care during and after even a short hospital stay can be very costly, which makes good financial awareness and planning crucial. But, in many families, discussing finances is taboo. As a result, adult children usually know little, if anything, about their parents’ financial situation. Caregivers often have more questions than answers when it comes to trying to figure out how medical bills will be paid. It is important to realize at this point in time that your loved one’s finances are your business.
    A good place to start is determining whether the senior has Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance. The hospital social worker is your greatest asset when it comes to figuring out what insurance your loved one has, how much it will cover and what other programs might be available to help offset the costs of care both inside and outside the hospital.
  3. Learn about post-hospitalization care, medication and equipment needs.
    Following hospitalization, a patient of any age will need to have their health carefully monitored to prevent any further issues and even rehospitalization. Prescription medications may be added to a senior’s daily regimen, which can interact with other medicines, foods and aspects of their lifestyle. Inpatient or outpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy and/or speech language pathology may be necessary. Durable medical equipment and other devices might be needed to enhance their mobility and functioning, enabling them to return to their normal routines as safely and quickly as possible. It’s important to continue communicating with your loved one’s medical team regarding status updates and long-term predictions for their health and recovery. This will help everyone avoid financial and logistical surprises at discharge time.
  4. Decide where the senior should live after they recover.
    Part of understanding your loved one’s health status and care needs directly influences the setting in which these needs can be met. The level of care they require will determine where they will be discharged to. Ideally, your loved one will be stabilized and deemed safe to return to their home without any major changes to their lifestyle, but that is not always the case.
    Many seniors need high-level skilled nursing care in a rehabilitation facility to regain partial or total functioning before they can return to their home or even move in with a caregiver. This is often a short-term arrangement, but in other instances a permanent care and housing decision must be made. Perhaps it is no longer safe for the senior to live at home, in which case they will need to move to an assisted living facility or set up extensive help through an in-home care company.
    Although most people would prefer to stay in their own house, it is important to realize that safety and quality of life are top priorities. Senior living facilities like nursing homes have changed considerably in recent decades. It is a difficult decision, deciding whether or not a loved one should continue living at home, but it is an important one that most adult children and some spouses will face at some point in their lives. Knowing what options are available will help you make this decision confidently.
  5. Make sure all important legal documents are in order.
    There are several crucial legal documents that all adults should have in place—especially those who are in their golden years. Medical and financial powers of attorney, advance directives, HIPAA authorization and estate planning documents (such as a will) are typically central pieces of the legal puzzle for seniors and their caregivers. Regardless of whether these preparations are already in place or a recent hospitalization has spurred your family into action, it’s crucial to work with a reputable elder law attorney to ensure all bases are covered now and in the future.
  6. Educate yourself on the senior’s medical condition.
    It can be very difficult to learn a significant amount about your loved one’s condition while they’re still in the hospital and you’re trying to iron out billing and post-discharge care. You’ll get a great deal of information from the hospital care team to help you make next decisions, but your work usually isn’t over once your loved one has been discharged. Learn all you can about their medical condition(s) and the medications they are taking. This is especially important if the senior has chronic and/or progressive illnesses, like COPD, heart failure or dementia. has a wealth of information on many different health conditions that are common in seniors. A solid understanding of their health is invaluable and makes you a strong and effective member of their care team.
  7. Get support for yourself.
    Whether your loved one comes to live with you or moves into a nursing home, it’s important for you to find the proper support to help you navigate this new stage of both your lives. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to find out what resources are available. Take advantage of in-person and online Caregiver Support Groupswhere you can ask questions about your situation and receive answers and emotional support from fellow caregivers who have been in your shoes. Make sure you are doing everything you can to help yourself in addition to your loved one. Sometimes this means taking a break every so often and letting someone else pick up the slack. After all, maintaining your health and happiness directly affects your care recipient’s quality of life and longevity, too.

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