When the Doctor Has Ordered Lab Tests and Your Parent Has Dementia…

A lab technician collecting a blood sample from a patient

When my Dad was first diagnosed with dementia, my Mom and I committed to keep him at home as long as possible. This, of course, meant routine trips to the primary care physician and other specialists. I soon came to dread lab tests, ranging from routine blood draws to urine specimens.

Even when Dad was healthy, it was challenging for phlebotomists to draw blood successfully. Fast forward to the dementia years and more than once, he ended up crying in the lab chair while the technician poked and prodded him with a needle. Urine samples were perhaps less traumatic for him, but just as traumatic for me. I was utterly uncomfortable helping my own father with such a personal task.

Over the years, I adopted five techniques to try to get both of us through with a minimum of trauma:

  1. Communicate clearly with the lab technicians. When we went to the lab for blood work, I always went in with my Dad. I told the technicians upfront that he always had difficulty with blood draws, both physically and emotionally. I learned to ask them to use the tiniest, pediatric needles.

  2. Find an ally. I quickly learned who the best phlebotomists were and I made friends with them. "Monica" was an angel who had a gentle manner and usually could draw blood from Dad on the first try. I found out what her schedule was and made sure to time our lab visits to coincide with her schedule. People feel honored when they are requested by name. When we had to see other technicians, they were quick to point out that they were "as good as Monica."

  3. Explain your situation to the nursing staff. The nurses in the primary care physician's office empathized with my plight with regard to assisting with urine test. I asked them politely if someone else could help. They usually found a man nurse who put my Dad at ease and helped him. As a general rule, most primary care practices deal with a wide range of patient ages. They may not be attuned to the needs of older patients. So, don't be surprised if you need to ask for special help. All they can say is no, and most likely they will say yes.

  4. See if you can collect the specimen at home. Sometimes as a last resort, I would ask if we could do the urine test at home and bring the specimen back. I often asked for a "hat" – this plastic device fits over the toilet. For people with decreased manual dexterity or cognitive abilities, it's an easier solution than juggling small cups or jars. While the situation at home was still awkward, it was lessened somewhat since my Mom could help.

  5. Focus on caregiving in a respectful way. While handling the health affairs of an elderly parent with dementia may feel like caring for a child, it's important to remember that you are still your mother's or father's child. Strive to treat your parent with loving respect, while quietly navigating the details needed to get them the care they need – either in the lab or in the doctor's office. Don't talk about your parents to healthcare professionals as if they aren't there. Make an effort to include them in the conversation, even if they don't fully comprehend what is going on.

Even though declining health may have changed your parent's capabilities, it hasn't changed their humanity. As you help them your mother or father navigate the healthcare system, you can be the bridge to ensure that they have quality, human interactions with health professionals.

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