Helping an elderly person through medical testing
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This article waslast modified on 11 February 2018.


What seems like a simple medical test to the average adult can be significantly more challenging to the elderly person whose health is more frail. Here are a few reasons to take extra care when an older person requires a medical test.

This article is part of a collection of articles offering tips for taking medical tests. For more information that may be of value, see the articles on Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, and Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests.

  • The elderly are more likely to have problems with their vision and hearing that may make it difficult for them to follow instructions or understand what must happen for the specimen to be properly collected
  • Older people have more problems with balance and mobility, factors that can make some samples physically harder or more dangerous to provide
  • Even a blood test can be more difficult because the skin is thinner, the subcutaneous tissue is less resilient, and the veins are more fragile and prone to tearing when punctured. The person may prefer one phlebotomist in particular who handles them well
  • For a person with dementia, even a brief sample collection procedure can be very traumatic for the patient. In this case, the need for testing must be even more carefully scrutinised.

If testing is a burden for someone you know, talk to the doctor about the situation.

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About Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests
  • The Challenge of Getting There

    Transport to the hospital, clinic or surgery can present problems for the elderly, who may not drive and may be dependent on someone else to take them to their medical appointments. Reducing stress on the driver can make for a more positive experience.

    Planning Ahead — If you must go somewhere unfamiliar for a test, get good directions on where you must drive and where you must walk; this will help eliminate stress. Find out if it will be easier for the person having the test to be dropped off at a certain entrance. You may also want to inquire about busy times and plan to avoid them.

  • Issues of Safety

    Falls are common and especially serious in people over age 65, and bathrooms can be particularly hazardous. Pay attention to safety when you are collecting a urine or stool sample, particularly for individuals who have mobility or vision problems. Your focus on the collection process may prevent you from noticing hazards or unsafe conditions in the room, so gather what you need and plan ahead.

    Tripping — Before you begin, you can remove rugs and loose mats.

    Slipping — Be on guard for spills and a slippery or wet floor.

    Falls — Encourage the use of grab bars or other supports near the toilet area to help prevent injuries from falls.

  • The Need for Help

    It is not uncommon for an elderly patient to need some assistance when taking a medical test. A person with arthritis, joint stiffness, or other mobility problems may find it difficult to obtain a urine or stool sample without some help. A woman with dementia may be unable to follow the instructions on obtaining an appropriate urine specimen; she may also become confused or agitated when someone tries to do this for her. A person who does not see well or has poor manual dexterity can have trouble using the required equipment, such as specimen cups or blood glucose monitors for diabetes.

    Here are some tips to make the sample collection process go more smoothly.

    Instructions — An older person may have trouble hearing verbal directions, reading printed instructions, or remembering when a test is scheduled or what it is for. Always ask for written instructions, preferably concise ones in large type. When giving oral instructions, take it one step at a time, and use a calm and reassuring tone; before you begin, seek to minimize noise and distractions and create a calm environment.

    Special Equipment — Special equipment can make certain procedures easier and safer. A urine sample may be more easily collected in a receptacle placed in the toilet rather than in a cup or jar that has to be held. A magnifying glass with a bright light attachment can help a diabetic patient with vision loss perform self-monitoring of blood glucose. A different kind of lancet or needle may prove easier or less painful or intimidating to use.

    Hired Help — Although nursing homes have personnel to assist with sample collection procedures, sheltered housing facilities do not always provide nursing support for these situations. If you need assistance where none is available you may be entitled to help from a district nurse or care assistant.

    Privacy — Helping a person obtain a urine or stool sample can be a task neither party finds particularly pleasant. The person needing the help may be embarrassed, and the person providing the help may find the odors and cleaning tasks offensive. Provide as much privacy as is safely possible to increase everyone’s comfort level.

    Compassion — The carer involved in specimen collection may find it helpful to view the assistance provided as an act of kindness and love. If you are aware of a situation in which a patient is not treated appropriately, take steps to ensure that the patient receives competent and compassionate care.