What Does Rationing of Care Mean for Your Aging Parents?

ICUs are overflowing into hallways, filled with Covid patients. Hospitals are short of staffing to care for the critically ill. In some states, people are being turned away at emergency rooms and administrators desperately search for another hospital to take the patients they can’t accept. They are too full for even one more person in need, no matter whether urgent care could save a life. What can this mean for your aging loved one who might need to go to a hospital?

Rationing of care happens in war zones. It works like this: a healthcare professional (0r medic) in charge has to make awful decisions about who can get the scarce resources for care and treatment on the battlefield. Those deemed “too far gone” are not treated, except perhaps for pain. They are most likely to die. Those not quite as bad as the worst off are given lesser priority, and those who are most likely to survive are given the attention of those available to treat them. They are most likely to live, largely because they get some treatment. And now, the battlefield is here, in the U.S. In our own hospitals where one would normally expect that anyone will be accepted into the emergency room, some will be turned away.

Rationing means that not everyone who can be saved by emergency intervention will get it. The doctors must pick whom to treat and whom to reject. They focus on those “most likely to survive.” Will that be your 80 year old grandma with a heart attack? Will it be your 85 year old father who got seriously hurt in a bad car accident? Think about it: if a 40 year old in respiratory distress due to Covid comes in at the same moment your injured aging parent arrives by ambulance, which one will be turned away? The E.R. Can’t accept both, as there is not enough staff. Sadly, it will probably be the older person, not the younger one turned away-- because of age! The elder must wait and perhaps be sent elsewhere in search of care. Those turned away can and do die in the meantime.

Covid patients in acute distress with breathing difficulty are overwhelming our hospitals. They are getting the care they need while others are being rejected because they are older, deemed “less likely to survive” or just because no one knows where else to send them when every available ICU bed for hundreds of miles is full.

People call our crisis a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. Whatever you call it, I can assure you that it is horrible and that our frail elders, not infected with Covid but in dire need of help cannot count on getting that help from many of our nation’s hospitals at this moment. If it is your aging loved one who has an emergency, you don’t want to feel the anger and frustration that some families are already experiencing when their loved ones die for lack of treatment that could well have saved their lives.

My warning on this to consider: you may need to move your aging loved one, even temporarily, away from home, if hospitals in their area are totally overwhelmed! The data on which states are facing care rationing is widely available in many news outlets. Find out if this could affect your elders where they live. No one can count on your aging parent never having a heart attack, as stroke or a head injury during this pandemic surge of the Delta variant. If they are in a rural area and you know they are in fragile health, and could possibly face care rationing at their nearest hospital, offer to take them in, set them up somewhere safer, or transport them yourself to a better location. Emergency room care and hospital beds are still available for your aging parents in many states but certainly not every state. The situation in hospitals is further complicated because many people had to defer care and surgeries during the pandemic shutdown. They are in hospitals beds now too, because waiting for treatment with some chronic conditions makes things worse and can lead to emergencies.

Rationing of care is real. Imagine how relieved you would feel if you knew your aging loved one could count on emergency treatment at a location away from the worst places. Unexpected health emergencies happen every day to someone. It may be up to you to make that offer to help your aging parent right now to ensure their safety. Moving then away from a place where the pandemic surge is blocking emergency care could be a lifesaver.

Related: 7 Warning Signs of Financial Elder Abuse