5 ways to support an emergency admission to hospital

Reviewed by Dr Patrick Ruane

At some point, most of us will experience the distress of an older family member being admitted to A&E in a medical emergency, such as following a stroke, heart attack or fall. Not only is it extremely upsetting to see an elder loved one so vulnerable, the A&E admissions process itself can be a very hectic and confusing experience.

Once admitted, older people often stay longer in the acute admissions ward, and may be moved between different wards, before space can be found on a care of the elderly ward. Older people also have longer hospital stays and are more likely to experience delayed discharge, according to Age UK. Their research shows that 1 In 6 patients over the age of 75 is then readmitted within 30 days of being discharged.

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We often feel helpless in these circumstances. But there are several things you can do to support your parent or elder relative through an emergency admission, that will help to optimise their care and chances of recovery.

Note: This article serves as general informational guidance for A&E admission to NHS hospitals in an emergency, and assumes your parent has granted permission for your involvement in their care. It should not substitute professional advice. Consult a qualified healthcare professional for personalised healthcare recommendations.

1. Keep and bring up-to-date information about their medications and allergies

The medical team will need to know exactly what medications your parent or elder relative are taking, and if there are any that they are allergic to or experience side effects from. Ideally your parent would take all their medications to hospital with them but in an emergency, this isn’t always possible. 

To ensure you can accurately inform the hospital staff what medications they are on, it’s a good idea to take a photo or photos of all their medications (clearly showing the prescription stickers) and keep them in an album on both your phone and theirs, so you have them to hand in emergencies. Knowing when and how your parents take their medication each day also helps staff ensure they stick to the same regimen in hospital.

If they have a smartphone, ensure the NHS App is installed and set up on it. This will allow access to an up-to-date record of their prescriptions (you would need to know the log-in details if they are not able to provide them themselves).

If you have it to hand, another useful resource to bring could be a copy of a recent medical summary from their GP – which can be printed off for free by the GP reception. Again, you can take a photo of this and keep it in an album on your phone.

2. Remove valuables if possible

Things go missing in hospitals all the time so, if possible, make sure they don’t have anything valuable with them when admitted.

If they are wearing any jewellery or are carrying any valuables on them, remove these before they are admitted or the ambulance collects them.

All jewellery or anything of value should be left at home.

3. Pack a well-equipped hospital bag

If your parent needs to stay in hospital for a few days or weeks following their admission, you’ll need to bring them a few items to ensure they are comfortable and to keep them occupied during their stay.

Pack them a little bag and make sure the bag has a luggage tag with their name and a contact number or email clearly written on it.

Think about packing:

  • Comfortable clothes including a dressing gown
  • Non-slip slippers
  • Toiletries
  • Warm blanket or throw (hospitals can be cold and blankets provided aren’t always that great. This is particularly important if your parent feels the cold more – which many elder people do).
  • Glasses, hearing aids (with enough battery), dentures (consider putting stickers with their name or NHS number on the cases just in case they go missing)
  • Current prescribed medications – enough to last for the expected time they will be in hospital
  • Mobile phone and mobile phone charger (mobile phones can now be used widely on hospital wards)
  • A little bit of cash
  • A list of key emergency contact numbers
  • Some books, magazines or activities to occupy them during their recovery period, such as crossword or puzzles book, playing cards, headphones
  • Pad and pen (to note down any important things that happen / what the doctors and nurses tell them)
  • Photos of loved ones (it can get lonely in hospital)

4. Advocate effectively for them

Speak up for them, ask questions and keep track of what is happening with their treatment plan from the moment they arrive at the hospital.  

As soon as possible, provide staff with as much information as you can about your parent or elder relative’s medical history, symptoms, and any concerns you may have.

Find out when the ward rounds take place, and try to be present at these times so you are fully aware of everything discussed, can ask questions and can be involved in decisions.  Bring a notepad and pen or use the notes app on your phone to make notes and relay this information to other staff and their GP if necessary. This can be particularly helpful if your parent or relative is moved to different wards throughout their stay.

Sometimes doctors and nurses use medical acronyms or terms you might not understand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be assertive if you are unsure about anything and request clarification on any decisions made regarding their treatment. And if you have a Lasting Power of Attorney for Health and Welfare, make sure you bring a copy with you.

Some questions to consider asking during their admission, depending on the type of emergency and whether surgery is required, include:

  • What are the visiting hours and how many people can visit at one time?
  • What time are the ward rounds?
  • When are mealtimes?
  • How long is treatment /surgery expected to take?
  • What is the minimum time they are likely to stay in hospital?
  • What is their DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation) status?
  • What ward will they be transferred to next?
  • What is the phone number of the ward they will be on?
  • Who is the main person in charge of their care that you can speak to if you have questions? How can you contact them?

If you believe that your parent is not receiving adequate care or if you have concerns about the standard of care provided, call the Patients Association helpline for support and advice.

5. Start planning for their return home

It’s important to start planning for their return home from hospital (hospital discharge) as soon as you can. If they have had a heart attack, stroke or bad fall, for example, it is very likely they are not going to be able to do a lot of their normal ‘activities of daily living’ (e.g. bathing, driving, shopping) while they recover.

So, you need to consider what they will need help with and who will help them.

For example, who will clean the house? Who will help them bathe? Who will do grocery shopping and prepare their meals?

They may only need basic support, but it’s helpful to anticipate potential challenges they will have as they recover. The earlier you start thinking about and organising support the better.

Find out who is in charge of the hospital discharge team (the team responsible for sending people home safely from hospital). Ask for a copy of the hospital’s discharge policy, and ask them if your parent will likely be eligible for NHS reablement care to support their recovery at home.  If so, find out how you can help to coordinate this.

Note: If they need support to recover at home, your parent or elder relative may qualify for NHS reablement care following their stay for a period of up to six weeks, but it depends on their needs. However, the process of setting up reablement care doesn’t always go smoothly, and while waiting for reablement care to be arranged, you may still need to arrange temporary support to ensure your loved one’s immediate needs are met.

In summary

While an A&E admission can be very distressing, following these simple steps can help increase the chances of your elder loved one having a better hospital experience and smoother recovery. It will also help you feel more informed and give you a greater sense of control.

Try to remain as calm as possible, so that you can be proactive and advocate for their needs consistently throughout their stay.

Common questions

How can elderly get seen faster in A&E?

Elderly patients can get seen faster in A&E by ensuring they have a clear medical history available, including any ongoing conditions or medications, which helps medical staff prioritise their care more effectively. Additionally, if the situation allows, contacting NHS 111 for advice on the best course of action can expedite the process. However, if it is an absolute emergency, it’s important to call 999 or go straight to their nearest A&E. An absolute emergency includes loss of consciousness, acute confused state and fits that are not stopping, chest pain, breathing difficulties, severe bleeding that cannot be stopped, severe burns or scalds, symptoms of stroke.

How are A&E patients prioritised?

A&E patients are prioritised based on the severity of their condition and the urgency of their need for medical attention. This means that those with life-threatening injuries or illnesses will be seen first, followed by those with serious but non-life-threatening conditions. Triage nurses assess patients upon arrival to determine their priority level.

How long are A&E waiting times?

Waiting times in A&E depend on various factors, including the severity of the condition, the time of day, the day of the week, the time of year, and the efficiency of the specific hospital’s triage and treatment processes. All UK countries have a “four-hour standard” that at least 95% of attendances are admitted, transferred, or discharged within four hours of their arrival at any type of A&E department. In November 2023, the median waiting time for all patients was 3 hours 4 minutes.

Is there an alternative to NHS A&E?

For life-threatening emergencies, always call 999 or go straight to your nearest A&E. However, there are alternatives to NHS A&E for non-emergency medical needs. NHS Urgent Treatment Centres (UTCs) and GP walk-in clinics can provide medical attention for minor injuries and illnesses that do not require immediate hospital care. If you are not sure and the situation is not urgent, contact NHS 111 for advice on the most appropriate course of action based on the person’s symptoms.

Private hospitals don’t have A&E departments, but some have walk-in, urgent care centres where you can seek treatment for non-life-threatening conditions, such as burns or wounds.

Terminology Toolkit

Acute Admissions Ward

An Acute Admissions Ward or Unit is the ‘front door’ for the majority of patients requiring emergency treatment in a hospital. When someone arrives at A&E, this is the ward they go on to for assessment and treatment first, before they are stabilised and can be sent to another ward for further treatment and recovery.

Ward round

A ward round is when a group of doctors – usually including a consultant, registrar (trainee consultant) and junior doctors – visits each patient in the ward to review their progress, discuss treatment and discuss any concerns raised by the healthcare team. In the NHS, ward rounds typically take place in the morning, Monday to Friday, but this varies.

Hospital discharge

Hospital discharge is the name given to the process of sending a person home or to another type of care facility after hospital treatment. It involves providing instructions for any continuing treatment or care required, including medications, as well as information on arranging follow-up appointments if needed.

NHS Reablement Care

NHS Reablement Care is free, short-term care that can be arranged by hospital staff if your parent is being discharged from hospital (due to an accident, short illness or operation) but needs continuing care afterwards to recover at home, get back to normal and stay independent. If eligible, people can receive reablement care for up to 6 weeks maximum.

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