From the pill containers on your nightstand to the kitchen calendar filled with your doctor appointments, there are plenty of telltale signs that health care becomes a larger presence in our lives as we age.
About a third of older adults visit at least five different doctors a year. In some ways that shows progress in health care, with more options for diagnosing and treating diseases.
But people over 65 need to be cautious as well. Juggling all the diagnoses and prescriptions from different specialists can be confusing. And the time spent just getting to and from all those different appointments can be a challenge for you, your family, or your caregiver.
Why All Older Adults Need a Primary Care Doctor
Your primary care doctor is the one who can help you make sure all these resources are working well together. You keep your car and the HVAC system in your home running smoothly by keeping up routine maintenance. Your primary care doctor can provide that same coordination to help you stay on top of all your health needs. You should schedule an appointment with this important health care partner at least once a year, especially if you have any kind of chronic illness.
Your primary care doctor can
- Monitor ongoing conditions, like diabetes, lupus, or high blood pressure
- Keep track of all the medications you are taking
- Provide blood tests, mammograms, and routine immunizations
For older adults, either a primary care doctor or a geriatrician (who specializes in older people) can help streamline your care. It is especially important for one doctor to know about all the specialists you are seeing and what medications you are taking. This doctor can see danger signs: For example, letting you know that some drug combinations can cause side effects, like dizziness, which could lead to falls.
Primary care doctors’ skills include a little bit of every aspect of medicine. They use a holistic approach to coordinate your care, whether the needs are physical, emotional, or mental. Seeing a doctor you trust usually means a better relationship with them, and that results in better care.
Sometimes, this doctor has treated or is aware of the health histories of other family members, helping detect early symptoms of serious diseases. Your primary care doctor usually knows you well enough to ask the right questions to detect problems in their early stages.
What Immunizations and Tests Should I Have?
Your annual physical should include these important checks:
- Pneumonia vaccine
- Flu shot
- Bone density test for osteoporosis (women age 65, men age 70)
- Blood sugar
- Sodium and potassium
- Liver and kidney function
Don’t Overdo It
Adults over 65 see doctors more than twice as often as 18-44-year-olds, according to the CDC.
But there can be some risk in going to the doctor too often. Being around sick people in a hospital or clinic increases your risk of illness or infection.
Getting the Most Out of Your Primary Care Doctor Visit
To cut down on unneeded visits, make sure the time spent with the doctor and their team is well spent. Keep a running list of questions and symptoms, and be sure and take them to your appointment.
One way to group your concerns is to remember these “3 M's.”
- Medications: Are all my meds working well together?
- Memory: Am I just getting forgetful, or is it something more serious?
- Mobility: Any changes in getting around the house, the neighborhood?
Be specific. It’s not helpful to say, “I take two little yellow pills in the morning and one white one at night.” Have a list of your medications and dosages in your wallet or on your phone, and keep it up to date. All your other doctors may not be communicating with each other, so take charge of this important part of your health by including prescription and nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, and herbal medications.
Take a spouse, caregiver, or friend with you. It helps to have another set of eyes and ears, especially if there’s a new diagnosis or a change in your medications. Like many older people, you may rely on family members for transportation or help around the house. Their input to the doctor can help with the big picture of your day-to-day needs.
A Doctor “Visit” May Not Involve Going to an Office at All
As many of us learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, a video conference call can take the place of traveling to an appointment. A telemedicine chat with your doctor or their staff can eliminate the need for a commute and a long wait, especially when the problem is a minor one.
Routine requests, like pharmacy refills, can be handled by email or on a patient computer portal. Your primary care doctor can also stay tuned in to your health status through wearable devices. Watches, heart monitors, and implants allow your doctor to track heart activity, blood pressure, sleep, and physical activity.
Share the Details, No Matter How Small
Let your doctor be the judge of whether a symptom is serious or not, whether that is a sleep problem, constipation, memory loss, or fatigue. New issues could be tied to one of your medications and could be fixed with a change in prescription.
Holding back details about your life makes getting to the answers more difficult. Not sharing the truth about your drinking, lack of exercise, or skipping medications may take a toll later on. You may want to avoid getting a lecture from the doctor, or you may be embarrassed or fearful about going on record about sexual or mental health issues.
Your doctor will ask about how your body is working, but also about how you are doing in your daily life. These questions involve routine but crucial things like bathing and dressing, driving, and grocery shopping. Are you having any difficulties cooking? Do you still get together with friends and family? These all paint a better picture of any problems you are facing.
Investing in Primary Care Pays Off
People with an ongoing relationship with a primary care doctor have fewer hospitalizations and visits to the emergency department than people without this resource. Regular screenings and routine appointments can help you cut costs and lower costs in the health care system.
Photo Credit: Courtney Hale / Getty Images
AARP: “How Often Do You Really Need to Go to the Doctor?” “The Lies We Tell Our Doctor.”
Mayo Clinic: “Do Healthy Older Adults Need Regular Health Care Visits?”
Novant Health: “Questions to ask your doctor at 65 and older.”
UC San Diego Health: “Almost 1 in 3 U.S. Seniors Now Sees at Least 5 Doctors Per Year.”
UnityPoint Health: “10 Reasons Why You Need a Primary Care Doctor.”