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7 steps to a senior-friendly practice


Older clients may need a little extra care and attention to ensure a happy veterinary experience. Here's what you can do to help them help their pets.

May Jenkins, an 82-year-old widow, lives with her rescued pound puppy, Lucky. Her grown children have their own families and income, so she spends most of her time and money on her beloved companion. But May struggles to get around these days, and sometimes she forgets to give Lucky his medication. What can your practice do to make pet care easier for May and other clients like her? Check out this list of ways to care for the special seniors who care for your special patients.

1. Plan ahead

You've got a schedule, so mine it for data about who's visiting and when. If you know which clients need help unloading dogs or handling cat carriers with their walkers, tag their files with a note to meet them at their cars. Remember, your practice can be a busy, distracting place, so offer to escort seniors and their pets and supply plenty of assistance.

"We try to be aware of senior clients' needs, and we'll carry pets for them, handle transactions in the exam rooms, and so on," says Michelle Guercio, CVT, CVPM, hospital administrator at the Animal Care Center of Pasco County in New Port Richey, Fla. "This allows our senior clients to give their full attention to the team members serving them."

2. Offer guidance

View your practice critically and look for places where senior clients might need assistance, such as opening and closing heavy practice doors. Elderly clients with glaucoma or cataracts will appreciate clear, well-lit pathways, especially in the evening (see "Build senior-friendly spaces"). You also might offer to guide clients to exam rooms or to their cars if they look unsteady. And always point out the slightest drop in floor level.

Build senior-friendly spaces

Nancy Allen, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and practice manager at Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe, Kan., says when clients visit with large, boisterous dogs, she tries to direct seniors to another, quieter part of the lobby. This helps ensure these dogs won't jump up on older clients and accidentally cause distress or injuries.

3. Communicate clearly

Remember that seniors may not know the latest trendy phrases. Asking Mr. Henry if he would "be down" with giving Simon liquid medication instead of pills could result in your client sitting on the floor while his Siamese gets its drops.

Older clients also may suffer from hearing loss, so Allen advises sitting face-to-face and explaining each step of the exam slowly and clearly. People read lips as much as they listen through a hearing aid, so try to use nonverbal communication that reinforces your words, such as nodding, smiling, or touching the client on the arm. It's also a good idea to ask clients to repeat your instructions and recommendations to make sure they understand them.

You need to hear clients, too, so practice active listening when clients speak. Maintain eye contact, direct your posture toward the person you're speaking to, and summarize what the client said, adding, "Have I understood you correctly?" It also helps to ask lots of questions. And at all times, be patient. This means you must stop talking to let clients answer your questions and finish their thoughts, Allen says.

4. Write it down

Follow up conversations with written instructions, and use a large font for clients with vision problems. Sharon DeNayer, a Firstline board member and clinic manager at Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Windsor, Colo., suggests making a calendar showing when medications are due. You'll ask clients to cross out the date after they give a dose to avoid accidental overdosing. Then follow up with a phone call when patients are due for a refill. She also recommends giving clients your business card or contact information and encouraging them to call with any questions.

5. Look for gentle alternatives

Imagine clients' frustration when they try to give Trixie or Rudolph the medication as the doctor instructed and they can't get the darned pill bottle open. Easy-open caps offer a good solution for elderly clients who don't live in households with small children. Clients with poor vision will appreciate bottles that look different, so put medications in different sized containers, use colored caps, or even place a rubber band around the bottle so it stands out.

If pets eat canned food, ask clients if they prefer pop-top cans to ones that require a can opener, DeNayer says. You may also suggest elevating litter boxes and pet food dishes to avoid unnecessary bending.

6. Offer a shoulder to lean on

Simple gestures will demonstrate you care about your elderly clients. Perhaps you offer a senior discount or a complimentary nail trim for those on fixed incomes. Or maybe you can get a little more personal with special clients. DeNayer visited Edna, a 97-year-old client, each day on the way to the post office to make sure her dog had food and took his pills. After the dog died, she continued to visit and make sure Edna took her own medication.

Team members at Windsor Veterinary Clinic also pick up elderly clients' animals when they don't have transportation. And sometimes they offer free short-term boarding to make sure pets receive their medicine as prescribed. Frankie's Lifesaving Fund, an Angel Fund Windsor Veterinary Clinic established, allows the team to set aside cash for clients who need financial assistance to care for their pets.

7. Prescribe pets, not pills

You already know pets are good for the heart and soul—they offer a sense of security, relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and provide companionship. Taking a pet for a walk may be the only social interaction—and physical exercise—a senior gets during the day. For this person, the animal is a lifeline.

Remember Edna? When Edna was 90, DeNayer says she took medication for depression with no results. Then DeNayer struck on the perfect solution: She helped Edna find a pet. Edna lived another seven happy, drug-free years. Just remember, DeNayer says, if you're helping a senior client choose a pet, select an animal that's calm, interactive, and relatively low-maintenance, like a mature cat. Another fun option: Invite senior clients who've lost their pets to visit your clinic animals.

Kimberly Stredney is a freelance writer in Chicago. Please send questions or comments to firstline@advanstar.com

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