Snehlata Chopra is 88 years old, has chronic asthma, acid-reflux, is a bit overweight, has an occasional irregular cardiac rhythm, cancer of the breast in the past, glaucoma in both eyes, and anxiety. She manages to move around her home without support, and occasionally steps out in a chauffeur-driven car for an outing. Two maids employed at home (one for cooking, and one for cleaning the house) have been instructed by her daughter to always keep an eye on her. She is very careful about all her medication, extremely sensitive to any changes in doses, and expresses concern whenever I prescribe anything new – believes she will react to it adversely.
I refrain from doing so.
But I requested her to use a walking stick last week while walking inside her (fairly large) living room, negotiating a couple of sofa sets and other furniture. She looked at me as though I was out of my mind. Smiling at her daughter, she said I wish there was a solution to my problems of reflux and breathlessness.
I persisted on the walking stick.
Her daughter changed the topic. “We have enough servants in the house, Dr. Rajan. Don’t ‘stress’ mummy on that now”.
I realised it was now futile. The walking stick was actually a stress for the mother. I didn’t want to add to her already ever-increasing stresses.
Why is the walking stick taboo?
While walking at home last week, Mrs. Chopra had a fall, fracturing her hip. She is likely to be laid up for at least the next 3 to 6 months. She is miserable. So is her family. There is also a 30% chance she will never be able to walk again.
Her daughter text messaged me last week, “Hi Dr, am still in hospital with mummy, hope she gets better soon, but there are so many problems now with her, cannot bear to see her suffer”.
Such situations are not uncommon in India, where using a walking stick seems to be a taboo for many elderly people. One lady (with chronic lung disease) discharged from the hospital two months ago, and advised by me to walk regularly with a physiotherapist’s help, returned for follow-up a week later on a wheel-chair. When I asked her what made her do that, she replied “I was too tired to walk today, but I walk regularly with the physiotherapist’s support at home”. I asked her why not use a walking stick? She smiled at her son who had accompanied her. Her son sheepishly replied that his mother was too embarrassed to use one. I immediately retorted that she had come to the clinic in a wheel-chair. Wasn’t that worse? He looked at his mother and duplicated what I said in Gujarati (which I am not fluent with). She mumbled something back. He looked at me with a half-smile and said “That’s ok with her”.
Atul Gawande in his masterpiece book, Being Mortal, has highlighted how doctors have completely failed in looking after elderly patients well, or may I add, well enough. We seem to be using technology well to prolong lives and increase longevity, but fail to understand situations where it’s not technology, but common sense and simple solutions that will give many of our elderly a much better quality of life, in their final years.
Keeping an elderly sick patient (with end-stage lung disease) comfortable
A 74-year-old lady, Sheela Vora, with chronic end-stage lung disease on home oxygen for the past two years presented to our hospital emergency service. Her husband was counselled by the earlier doctor she had seen that should she get worse, he would not advise invasive ventilation. (Invasive ventilation refers to putting a tube down the patient’s throat into the windpipe, and attaching that tube to a ventilator. It is very uncomfortable for a conscious patient, making it almost impossible to talk, or eat food the normal way).
Our hospital emergency response team seeing her extremely uncomfortable and gasping for breath, placed the tube into her windpipe immediately and transferred her to ICU (Intensive Care Unit) for ventilation. Her husband just kept saying, “Please make her comfortable. She has been suffering so much…” He (and his wife) were at the mercy of the hospital emergency response team.
When I saw her a few hours later in the ICU, I asked him why he brought her to us for invasive ventilation. She was very sick at home on oxygen, she was unlikely to survive this episode with any reasonable quality of life, and the family was middle-class – this ICU stay was going to cost a bomb.
What the husband then said was pertinent – “Our doctor whom we trust had surely told us not to ever put Sheela on a ventilator when she gets worse”…..but then his voice trailed off. “But he didn’t tell us what exactly we need to do, should she get worse…….so we brought her here”.
Urgently needed – palliative care!
I know of just one palliative care specialist currently practising in Mumbai city, and we can’t wait for more. As a physician community we need to get our act together on better palliative care, especially for our elderly sick patients.
Palliative care seems (for many) to be synonymous with cancer, but it is far from that. In a small district in Kerala called Mallappuram, some of the finest palliative care initiatives can be seen, done quietly and efficiently by a strong local community effort. In their definition, palliative care is all about keeping the patient comfortable. It could be just providing food to a patient with advanced disease who is unable to purchase it on his own, or providing an air-bed to a chronically bed-ridden patient to prevent bedsores and subsequent infection.
Keep yourself well as you age
Whether its walking sticks, palliative care or just understanding the problems of chronic lung disease, there are many other ways to improve the quality of life when you are old:
To give some more examples: