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Lessons learned from Justice Ginsberg

As the media has widely reported, earlier this month U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg fell in her office, breaking three ribs. At 85 years old, a fall raises concerns for an older patient’s physical and mental health as well as questions about whether her environment could be safer. 

Here at Chayet & Danzo, LLC, our elder law attorneys advocate for Colorado seniors by planning for aging and incapacity, navigating health care and long-term care systems and financing, establishing estate plans, and creating safety nets using powers of attorney, medical directives, conservatorship and guardianship, and other techniques.

In September, we wrote about falls in older age and conditioning an aging body to prevent future tumbles. Today, we look at medical issues raised by Justice Ginsberg’s mishap. 

A fall may hint at something wrong or bring complications 

Emergency physician Dr. Jeremy Faust ably articulates the health concerns raised by the fall of an older person like Justice Ginsburg in an article for Slate. Dr. Faust emphasizes that no matter how trivial a fall seems, for an elderly person, a fall can either point to a serious underlying condition or evolve into a significant medical problem like a dangerous infection or respiratory distress. 

Dr. Faust makes these key points: 

  • An elder who has fallen must be questioned “vigorously” to uncover clues about the true cause of the accident such as an “underlying medical problem” like dehydration, influenza, pneumonia, infection, cancer or a heart attack. An older patient who has fallen can be embarrassed, private and vague when answering, so the doctor (and perhaps adult kids and other family members) must be persistent.
  • Unless there is a clearly “mechanical” reason for falling like tripping on a cord, the doctor should carefully ascertain what other symptoms might suggest. For example, has the elder been coughing or nauseous? The answers may suggest appropriate testing or investigation.
  • Pain relief is especially important because a patient may take shallow breaths in response to pain. Full breathing is important to prevention of respiratory distress or pneumonia, which can be severe or even fatal for elders.
  • Seniors may take blood-thinning medications, which doctors must account for after a fall.
  • An older person should seek urgent medical attention and assessment after falling, even if symptoms seem minor. 

Wake-up call? 

When an elder falls, it can be a nudge to consider whether that person should make life changes related to aging. Would a change in residential setting be smart or should she continue to drive, for example? An experienced elder law attorney can help to facilitate these conversations and to put legal structures into place to make changes now and in the future.

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