Have you been told by your doctor that your elderly parent needs surgery? If so, you're not alone. Millions of older Americans have surgery each year.

For most surgeries, you will have time to find out about the operation, talk about other treatments with your surgeon (medical doctor who does the operation), and decide what to do. You also have time to get a second opinion.

Questions to Ask the Surgeon Before Surgery

Deciding to have surgery can be hard, but it may be easier once you know why your parent needs surgery. Talk with the surgeon about the operation. Don't hesitate to ask the surgeon any questions you might have. For example, do the benefits of surgery outweigh the risks? Risks may include infections, bleeding a lot, or a reaction to the anesthesia (medicine that puts you to sleep).

Your surgeon should be willing to answer your questions. If you don't understand the answers, ask the surgeon to explain more clearly. Answers to the following questions will help you make an informed decision about your elderly parent's treatment:

  • What is the surgery? Does may parent need it now, or can she wait?
  • Can another treatment be tried instead of surgery?
  • How will the surgery affect my parent's health and lifestyle?
  • What kind of anesthesia will be used? What are the side effects and risks of having anesthesia?
  • Will my parent be in pain? How long will the pain last?
  • When will my parent be able to go home after the surgery?
  • What will the recovery be like? How long will it take to feel better?
  • What will happen if my parent doesn't have the surgery?
  • Is there anything else I should know about this surgery?

Getting a Second Opinion

Getting a second opinion means asking another doctor about your surgical plan. It is a common medical practice. Most doctors think it's a good idea. With a second opinion, you will get expert advice from another surgeon who knows about treating your parent's medical problem. A second opinion can help you and your parent make a good decision.

You can ask the surgeon to send your parent's medical records to the second doctor. This can save time and money since you may not have to repeat tests. When getting a second opinion, be sure to tell the doctor about all your parent's symptoms and the type of surgery that has been suggested.

Medicare may help pay for a second opinion. If you have a private supplemental health insurance plan, find out if it covers a second opinion.

Informed Consent

Before having any surgery, your parent will be asked to sign a consent form. This form says that the surgeon has told you about the operation, the risks involved, and what results to expect. It's important to talk about all your family's concerns before your parent signs this form. Your surgeon should be willing to take the time needed to make sure you know what is likely to happen before, during, and after surgery.

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Outpatient Surgery

Outpatient surgery, sometimes called same-day surgery, is common for many operations. Outpatient surgery can be done in a special part of the hospital or a surgical center. Your parent will go home within hours after the surgery. Outpatient surgery can cost less than an overnight hospital stay. Your doctor will tell you if outpatient surgery is right for your parent.

Before and After Surgery

There are many steps caregivers can take to make their elderly parent's surgery a little easier.

Before surgery:

  • Make sure your parent has pre-operation tests and screenings, such as blood tests and x-rays.
  • Be sure you have all your insurance questions answered.
  • Make plans for any medical equipment or help with health care you will need when your parent goes home.
  • Get written instructions about your parent's care, a phone number to call if you have a problem, and prescription medicines you'll need at home.

The day of surgery:

  • Leave jewelry at home.
  • Your parent shouldn't wear make-up or contact lenses to surgery.

Following surgery:

  • Make sure you follow all your doctor's directions once your parent is home.
  • Make sure your parent goes for their scheduled post-operative check-up.
  • Ask your doctor when your parent can resume normal activities.

Cost of emergency surgery

The total cost of any surgery includes many different bills. Your surgeon can tell you how much he or she charges. You may also be billed by other doctors, such as the anesthesiologist. There will be hospital charges as well. To find out what the hospital will cost, call the hospital's business office.

For information about Medicare benefits, call the customer service line at 800-633-4227. If you have secondary or supplemental health insurance, check to see what part of the costs it will pay. Talk to your surgeon if you can't afford the surgery.

In case of emergency surgery
An accident or sudden illness may result in emergency surgery. That's why you should always carry the following information with you:

  • Doctor's name and phone number
  • Family names and phone numbers
  • Ongoing medical problems
  • Medicines your parent takes, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • Allergies to medicines
  • Health insurance information and policy numbers

Make copies of this information to keep in your wallet and glove compartment of your car—just in case you need emergency care.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH) leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. In 1974, Congress granted authority to form NIA to provide leadership in aging research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs relevant to aging and older people.