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  • Daily Breeze

Senior living: Stranded in the ER, seniors await hospital care, suffer avoidable harm

Every day, the scene plays out in hospitals across America: Older men and women lie on gurneys in emergency room corridors moaning or suffering silently as harried medical staffers attend to crises.

Even when physicians determine these patients need to be admitted to the hospital, they often wait for hours — sometimes more than a day — in the ER in pain and discomfort, not getting enough food or water, not moving around, not being helped to the bathroom, and not getting the kind of care doctors deem necessary.

“You walk through ER hallways, and they’re lined from end to end with patients on stretchers in various states of distress calling out for help, including a number of older patients,” said Hashem Zikry, an emergency medicine physician at UCLA Health.

Physicians who staff emergency rooms say this problem, known as ER boarding, is as bad as it’s ever been — even worse than during the first years of the coronavirus pandemic, when hospitals filled with desperately ill patients.

While boarding can happen to all emergency room patients, adults 65 and older, who account for nearly 20% of ER visits, are especially vulnerable during long waits for care. Also, seniors may encounter boarding more often than other patients. The best estimates I could find, published in 2019, before the pandemic, suggest that 10% of patients were boarded in ERs before receiving hospital care. About 30% to 50% of these patients were older adults.

“It’s a public health crisis,” said Aisha Terry, an associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and the president of the board of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which sponsored a summit on boarding in September.

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