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Recovering from Surgery

Millions of older adults undergo elective surgery every year, and most of us derive significant benefits from these procedures. But that doesn’t mean we don’t harbor concerns about undergoing surgery. If your doctor has recommended surgical treatment, it is likely that countless questions about the procedure and the recovery period will race through your mind prior to the day of your surgery. I’ve undergone surgery myself, and even with my medical background I felt anxious about it. What helped alleviate my concern was getting informed about what to expect in the recovery period, and what I could do to help ensure that my recuperation was as smooth as possible. If you prepare yourself and approach the operation with a relaxed and positive outlook and a detailed understanding of what to expect down the road, your recovery also can be made easier.

Discuss with your doctor how the surgery might affect your immediate health and lifestyle, what recovery period is typical, and whether there are there any activities you won't be able to do afterwards (for example, can you safely bathe or drive?). Also ask what you need to stay alert for in terms of recovery “red flags” that may indicate you are developing a postoperative infection. Unfortunately older adults are at greater risk for these, and the risk is elevated if you have other health issues (like diabetes), you smoke, you are overweight or obese, you are having abdominal surgery, and/or your surgery lasts two hours or more. Signs you may be have an infection include a fever, and redness and pain in your surgical incision after a period when it appeared to be healing.

Be sure to inform your doctor about any other health issues you have, and provide him or her with a list of any drugs you may be taking, including nutritional supplements, as some (including ginkgo, ginseng, garlic and ginger) cause increased bleeding. It's possible certain medications in your regimen may be temporarily suspended prior to your surgery, and that your doctor may prescribe other drugs to help guard against problems during and after the operation. If you are given new medications, be sure that you have clear information on how and when to take them.

It also is important to think about help and support after your surgery. It's possible you may be advised to spend some time in a care facility immediately afterwards, but if you intend recovering at home, think about the practicalities involved and find solutions in advance of your operation. If your bedroom is upstairs, consider setting up a bed on the first floor, and make sure everything you might need during the day is easily accessible. Store food on countertops so that you won't have to reach or climb for it once you return home, and remove any tripping hazards. If necessary, install grab bars in your bathroom.

If you live alone and have no family or friends who can help take care of you after your surgery, inform your doctor and ask to speak with a social worker at the hospital. It is possible you may be eligible for the Medicare home care benefit, which can provide a nurse to care for any surgical incisions, manage your medications, and/or help you with physical therapy.

The American College of Surgeons (ACS) is a good source of information you also can utilize to find answers to questions you may have about upcoming surgery—visit to download pamphlets.

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