It’s the small things that cause big problems for elderly and isolated people

Alison Rood is SN&R’s foothills correspondent, still from the wrong side of the tracks.

The waiting room at the retinal consulting group was jammed, so my husband and I took seats apart from each other. I’m now firmly ensconced in middle age, but easily the youngest patient there. I pulled out the book I’d brought but was too restless to focus.

I began talking with the woman next to me. Two days before, a smeary, black blob suddenly appeared in the corner of my right eye. “I saw my optometrist yesterday, and he said I have a torn retina, but laser surgery should take care of it,” I said. “How about you?”

She described the blue dots and flashing lights she’d begun seeing in her eye several days before. “I called urgent care, and the advice nurse told me I should see an eye doctor immediately,” she said, “but I couldn’t get off work that day or the next.” She was quiet, but distraught. “I don’t have that luxury. I’m 62, and I support myself.”

I looked at my husband, who was calmly reading his Sports Illustrated, and felt a stab of guilt.

An elderly man wearing thick glasses checked in and took a seat, but a moment later, he returned to the receptionist and asked to use the telephone. “I think I left my credit card in the taxi!” he cried, frantic. He dug through his pockets. After several more panic stricken seconds, he paused: “Wait a minute,” he said, “I found it!”

He sat down again, but then the receptionist informed him he’d come on the wrong day. His appointment was on this date, but one month from now. “What?” he said, confused.

A nattily dressed couple across from me were whispering in worried tones. They appeared to be in their 80s. Eventually, they closed their eyes and seemed to nap, but the woman’s brow remained furrowed.

Later, I found myself sitting next to her in another waiting area, as eye drops were administered, and she confessed she was anxious about the time. It was late afternoon. “My husband can’t see to drive in the dark,” she fretted. “If they don’t finish with me soon, I don’t know how we’ll get home.”

The list of potential disasters in life is endless, so my daily routine hinges on the hope that nothing major will go wrong. But for many elderly people, as well as those without a support system, even a simple medical appointment holds the potential for disaster.

A friend of my husband’s sustained a torn retina as a child when he got smacked in the face with a baseball bat, but in my case, the retina had simply weakened from age. My injured eye was a precursor of the various ways my body will eventually let me down, but the people around me already knew that getting older can be just as damaging as a blow from a Louisville Slugger. By the time I was called for laser surgery, my problem, which I knew had a solution, had paled compared to the difficulties of the people I was observing.

When they finished with me, it was almost 6:30 p.m. and dark outside. The waiting room was empty, except for my husband. As I made my follow-up appointment, I saw the old man with the wrong appointment date. The doctor had seen him after all, and a taxi was on the way.

I hoped that the fretting woman had gotten out in time.