The doctor and the elderly: a patient's perspective.

  • Jean Sherwood
  • Published 2010 in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society


I am a 91-year-old woman. My reason for writing this article is to make the medical profession aware that old people are fragile. I compare us to an old, old book. If you open an old book too quickly and carelessly, the pages, brown with age, are likely to crumble. We elderly people are the same; we can crumble. Setting the stage for the points I want to make, I will be telling my many experiences. I am a prime example of mistakes that happen because of carelessness and lack of consideration for elderly people in the medical profession. First example is my crippled right hand and arm. I was in my kidney doctor’s office, waiting to have blood drawn for testing. The young woman doing this procedure grabbed my arm without thinking, slapped it on a counter well above the chair I was sitting in. I felt an excruciating pain in my right shoulder, arm, and hand. After returning home, the pain became even more unbearable, and I was screaming with pain. My neighbor heard me and called 911 and my son. I was in the hospital for 5 days. They ran many tests to see if I had had a stroke. There was no evidence of a stroke, but my right hand and arm were crippled. My life changed forever. In the process of testing, a large woman with strong hands grabbed my legs in an effort to move me from a gurney to a bed. Because of my fragile old skin and her lack of understanding of my fragility, I had three large wounds on my right leg where she grabbed me. I spent 2 months in a nursing home after the hospital released me. While I was in the nursing home, I got a staph infection in the wounds on my leg. Because the infection was not properly treated, my son had to call in a wound doctor, who treated the infection for 7 weeks. My final example occurred in a pain doctor’s office. I was due for an injection. I was in a wheelchair and had to climb onto a gurney onto my stomach for the injection. Two women were to help me. One grabbed my crippled right arm and tried to straighten it, which is not possible. She decided I would have to lie with that arm under me. The two women rolled me onto the gurney, where I waited for the injection. My right arm was painful and bruised. They began to roll me off the gurney. I started to slip and fall. I landed halfway on my knees. In the process, the wheelchair jammed into my left leg, causing a deep wound. I had two previous wounds on my right leg that reopened. I went to the wound doctor immediately. Again, because of my age, it took a long time for the three wounds to heal. ‘‘Comparisons are odious,’’ so said the 18th-century essayist Ralph W. Emerson. I have a point to make about a comparison. There are two episodes. The first episode is a visit to the wound clinic. The nurse prepped me, and the doctor came in and went to work immediately, with no explanation, trimming the wounds with his sharp knives. He finished, threw the knives, gloves, and equipment into a special wastebasket and walked out saying, ‘‘Two weeks.’’ Not a word about how my leg was healing or any other information. The second episode, in comparison, is the doctor who removed a cancerous area on my leg, later that same day. This doctor sat with me explaining kindly and considerately, ‘‘We know this is going to hurt, Mrs. Sherwood. I will burn off part of the area and cut away the rest. We will do everything possible to keep it from hurting more than necessary.’’ He told me he would give me an injection for pain and would keep spraying the area with painkillers as necessary. He encouraged me by telling me it would hurt, but knew I could handle it. Then the doctor who the physician’s assistant went to work. It was wonderful to see how completely coordinated they were. When he needed a sponge or electrical equipment, she would have them in his hand almost before he asked for them. They would continually ask how I was doing and kept encouraging me. This made me feel comfortable with what was happening. When they finished, it was after closing time. I was concerned about them being late for dinner, but the doctor said, ‘‘We can eat any old time.’’ I hope these episodes in comparison with one another will point out the kind of caring and thoughtfulness that can make life better for us ‘‘oldies.’’ I have been writing about how fragile old people are, but it is not necessarily oldness in itself. There is a difference between old and old-old. I know a woman who is 73, young in my view. We will call her Alice. She has rheumatoid arthritis throughout her body. Her pain was so intense that she could hardly breathe and did not want anyone to touch her. Alice’s physical therapist assigned a young assistant to look after her. The assistant did not simply jot down information; she felt strongly that she could help. She began very lightly touching and massaging with the tips of her fingers. Little by little, she would go deeper. She knew breathing was important and she began to help Alice breathe, with the Address correspondence to Jean Sherwood, 26371 Hickory Boulevard, Bonita Springs, Florida. E-mail:

DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2009.02642.x

Cite this paper

@article{Sherwood2010TheDA, title={The doctor and the elderly: a patient's perspective.}, author={Jean Sherwood}, journal={Journal of the American Geriatrics Society}, year={2010}, volume={58 1}, pages={176-7} }