Looking after the elderly at home this winter

As winter approaches, it is elderly people who are most at risk of ill health. The older we get, the less able our bodies are to fight the simple infections and minor illnesses we barely noticed in our youth.

For older, frailer people small health concerns can lead to serious problems like falls or confusion.

As an elderly medicine consultant, I know what a vulnerable period winter is for many elderly people and how it often leads to time in hospital. And even though hospital can seem like a comforting place, evidence shows frailer people recover much more quickly at home if they’re given extra help.

To support older patients to be able to recover at home and spend less time in hospital, I’ve been part of a team that has set up a new service at two of our hospitals – St Mary’s and Charing Cross – called the acute frailty units. The aim of this service is to make sure patients receive top quality care while also staying as independent as possible. Instead of elderly people coming into hospital for an extended period, each frailty unit provides a multi-disciplinary, one-stop-shop service where a patient can receive a comprehensive assessment and treatment on one ward over a couple of days.

The frailty units’ doctors, nurses and therapists all work together to develop treatment plans that give the best hospital care a patient needs while also supporting them to return home quickly. This means using the strong links we have with healthcare teams in the community to put in place all the help, support and therapy requirements a person needs to live at home, before they leave hospital.

Colin* came into the frailty unit after having a fall, with some deep cuts to his face and arms. He had been having symptoms for some time and the team was able to do a thorough investigation to work out why he fell, and give him medication to reduce the risk of him falling again. Colin received intensive therapy for two days and then was able to return home with his son. His local community team will follow up with him, and make sure that he’s doing OK. Without the acute frailty unit, Colin could easily have been in hospital for a week or more.

Working on the frailty units is busy and fast paced – there’s lots of information we need to gather about a patient, and many decisions to be made if we’re going to help someone leave hospital safely and return home. We conducted a survey recently of staff and patients and more than three quarters said they thought the frailty unit was improving care for older people. It’s a very rewarding place to work when you know you’re making a real difference to someone’s problems.

*Name and details changed to protect patient confidentiality




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