The Medical Minute: Simple steps to help seniors navigate their health care

In a doctor’s office, a doctor is seated and writing in a chart while sitting across from a seated, elderly female patient. A younger woman stands by her side. All are wearing face masks.

Seniors face increasing risks of developing chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes, dementia and heart disease, but navigating the health care system to manage what ails them may seem overwhelming. A few simple steps can help seniors safeguard their health and independence.

Talk with friends

First and foremost, seniors should talk with friends and family, ask questions and learn from other people’s experiences, said Maria Radwanski, manager of care transitions and outpatient adult care management at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

February 9, 2022Penn State Health News

“It’s common for someone who hasn’t had any health problems suddenly to be faced with their own issues and the need to navigate the health care system,” Radwanski said. “Before that happens, talk with friends who’ve been dealing with health concerns — especially if they’ve been in the hospital — to hear about their experiences so you have a better idea of what it might be like.”

Find a health care advocate

It’s important that seniors keep up with preventative care such as recommended health screenings and regular physicals. If they have health concerns, bringing a trusted friend or loved one to the appointment can be very helpful.

“It’s so important for a patient to understand what the doctor says,” Radwanski said. “Often, a patient won’t fully digest what the doctor’s saying. I advise seniors to have someone else at the appointment with a pen and paper to write everything down and make sure there’s appropriate follow-up.”

Seniors may be concerned that by bringing a loved one or trusted friend with them to their appointments, they’re giving away control of their medical care. That won’t happen, Radwanski said.

“There are policies and laws to prevent that. Of course, you should choose someone you can trust and who has your best interest in mind, but they can’t just step in and make decisions for you,” she said.

Create a list of medications and concerns

Radwanski advises seniors to keep an updated list of any health-related questions or concerns, including any changes in their medical history or new symptoms they may be experiencing, and take it to their doctor’s appointment with them. They should also have a list of all their current prescription and over-the-counter medications including any supplements they take, along with their dosages. Some may find it’s easier to put all the medications in a bag and take them to the appointment instead.

“Some years ago, a medical assistant asked my dad to confirm his medications and doses,” Radwanski said. “My dad’s answer to everything was, ‘Yes.’ But that really wasn’t the case. He’d changed some medications, discontinued others altogether. As his trusted advocate, I was there to listen carefully to the questions being asked and be ready to respond with the correct information.”

Seek financial clarity

Anyone who doesn’t fully understand their medical coverage and bills should have either a trusted loved one or a professional help review them.

“There are groups out there and advocacy services through senior centers that are a good resource to helping understand health care financials,” Radwanski said. “They offer continuing education-type programs for the public all the time to help people understand what insurance will and won’t cover.”

Additionally, seniors and their advocates can work with care managers or financial aid staff at the medical center where they receive care to help sort through their bills.

Guidance for loved ones

One common scenario with aging loved ones is that they may be uncomfortable asking for help — or may not even realize that they need it. And their adult children or trusted friends may not know how to talk with them about their needs. But when crucial conversations are delayed, they’ll often occur in the middle of a crisis situation, warned Radwanski. At that point, “a whole lot of emotion” may cause things to be expressed in anger, frustration or fear, she said.

“You’ll want to get permission to have these conversations with your mom or dad, aunt or uncle now, ahead of a medical crisis,” Radwanski said. “Come in with love and respect, ideally in a face-to-face conversation. Let them know how much they’re cared for, that you want the best for them and that you have some concerns you’d like to discuss with them. Then ask their permission to do that.”

Related content:

  • The Medical Minute: Why you need a primary care provider
  • The Medical Minute: When the caregiver needs care


The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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