Surgery is never an easy prospect, no matter your age, but it can be especially difficult for seniors.
In fact, a recent study found that mortality rates in older adults are higher after major surgery, with one in seven seniors not living in a nursing home dying within one year after major surgery. The mortality rate is even more pronounced in those who are already considered frail (one in four) or who have dementia (one in three).
While definitely something to take into consideration, the risks of surgery often don’t outweigh the benefits, so it’s important to be prepared if your loved one will be having surgery and returning home to recover. Surgical recovery at home is often easier and provides better outcomes than recovering in a hospital or a rehab facility—as long as it’s done safely.
If surgery is on the horizon for your loved one, check out these tips for making their home the best and safest place for them to recover.
Prepare well for home surgical recovery
“We always say that discharge planning starts on admission,” says Jennifer Prescott, a nurse and owner of Texas-based Blue Water Homecare. “We want to plan for coming home and having a good quality of life when we get home before we have surgery.”
Part of that planning is understanding the surgery and the recovery needs. Besides talking with your loved one’s doctor, Prescott recommends talking to others who have had the same or similar surgery to see what their recovery was like. Reputable websites can also be a valuable resource to help you and your senior understand what’s in store during the post-op period.
Be sure to ask questions about what, if any, mobility aids or additional assistance the senior may need when they return home. Be sure you understand what they will and won’t be able to do and what their restrictions are. For some surgeries, you may need to purchase or install additional fixtures or equipment in the home, and that can take time.
“The first step is safety,” Prescott said. “Do you have a safe environment in order to bring yourself or your loved one home? Do I need to have a ramp installed? Do I need to add additional safety bars? Do I need to order any equipment?”
Answering these questions and taking the correct steps to prepare is essential to successful surgery recovery.
Remove obstacles in the home
Keep in mind the effects of anesthesia can cause seniors to be unstable on their feet after surgery—with the effects often lasting up to a month.
So, no matter what type of surgery your loved one is having, providing a safe environment without obstacles is essential to recovery. Study the space and remove any furniture like ottomans or coffee tables that can impede the flow of traffic through the home. Keep in mind that if the senior will be using a walker or a wheelchair, the path between rooms will need to be wider than normal.
Pets are another consideration: Besides possibly being a tripping hazard (especially for those who’ve had knee or hip surgery), caring for a pet may be too difficult as your loved one recovers. You may need to make arrangements for temporary care of the pet(s) outside the home or have someone provide in-home assistance while they recover.
“We love our pets, and pets are wonderful,” Prescott said. “But it may be a situation if you live by yourself that you can handle taking care of yourself, but you can’t necessarily take care of a pet after surgery. With hip replacement or knee surgery, to have a dog underfoot or worry about taking them out or taking them for walks may not be a safe situation immediately post-operative.”
Plan for getting around
Many surgeries preclude patients from driving for a certain period after the procedure. If this is the case, be sure to get plans in place for getting your loved one to any therapy appointments before the surgery happens.
If no one is available to drive the senior to appointments after surgery, you’ll need to talk about in-home care options for physical therapy or occupational therapy if they’re needed. Even if you or another family member will be driving the senior, ensure the car you use is accessible for your loved one post-surgery. Cars that are high off the ground or sit very close to the ground can be difficult to get in and out of after some surgeries.
Have a nutrition plan
Especially if your loved one lives alone, it’s important to make sure they have adequate access to nutritious food, especially drinks. Dehydration can be detrimental to a good recovery from surgery.
Make sure you know how your loved one plans to get meals during their recovery period. You may need to organize others to bring food or set up delivery. Keep in mind that carryout foods can have a high sodium content, which can be outside the dietary limitations after some surgeries.
“Know your dietary and fluid restrictions,” Prescott advised. “Plan ahead for that. Make sure people know your restrictions if they’re bringing food.”
Placement of food items can also help improve the safety of seniors after surgery. Adding a small refrigerator to the room they spend the most time in can eliminate the need to walk across the house or apartment to get to the kitchen, reducing the chance of falling.
Focus on health
During recovery from surgery, it’s even more important to avoid infection. While visitors are an important part of recovery, be vigilant about asking visitors to wash their hands and cover their mouth and nose if they sneeze or cough. Encourage people not to visit if they aren’t feeling well.
If you’re involved in changing dressings or caring for open wounds, be sure to keep both your hands and the area where you’re working on the wound clean. Follow the doctor’s instructions for caring for incisions and wounds, keeping a close watch for any signs of infection.
Understand and follow the care plan created by the senior’s medical team. Attending therapy sessions, doing exercises at home and going to follow-up appointments are crucial to a successful recovery.
“If you follow your exercise program and eat healthy, then you will hopefully have a much faster recovery and end up with a better outcome from your surgery,” Prescott said.