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When to call for emergency medical services for the elderly?


When to call for emergency medical services for the elderly?Caregivers and family members are at times unsure when emergency medical attention is needed for an elderly person. However, delaying to call for help can often mean the difference between life and death in a person who is critically ill, and more so in the elderly who are frail. As a general rule of thumb – if in doubt, call for assistance immediately.

Emergency medical personnel can be at your door within minutes and stabilize the person on-site before moving them to a medical facility. Treatment will be ongoing throughout the trip to the emergency room. If there are issues relating to calling for medical services then rush a person to the emergency room immediately. It is always useful for every person to be able to identify a critically ill patient and seek medical assistance, irrespective of the patient’s age or medical history.

Warning Signs for Medical Attention for the Elderly

Airway and Breathing

This is the first vital sign that needs to be assessed. Breathing should be considered as abnormal and requiring medical attention if the elderly person is :

  • Gasping for air.
  • Breathing with loud and abnormal sounds.
  • Unable to speak or complete sentences.
  • Breathing too slowly (less than 8 breaths per minute) or too fast (more than 35 breaths per minute).
  • Not breathing at all.


Any severe disruption with blood flow throughout the body is usually fatal within minutes as the brain and heart muscle starves for oxygen. Some of the warning signs that should alert to a disturbance in circulation includes :

  • Pulse rate very slow (less than 40 beats per minute) or very fast (more than 140 beats per minute).
  • Systolic blood pressure (upper limit) that is below 100 mmHg.
  • Abnormal paleness and bluish tinge of the skin which may be more obvious in the fingers, toes or lips.
  • Cold and clammy to touch with paleness or bluish skin discoloration.

Nervous System

The nervous system controls all activity in the body and is one of the first systems to shut down in the critically ill patient. Warning signs include :

  • Altered consciousness where a person no longer knows where they are, their own name and cannot obey commands. Some of these symptoms may develop gradually in patients with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease but if it suddenly arises then it should be considered a medical emergency.
  • Diminished consciousness, falling in and out of consciousness or unconscious and unresponsive.
  • Seizures, especially if it is repeated with one attack following the next within minutes.


Drastic changes in body temperature are also a major warning sign in the critically ill patient. However, it is not always immediately evident to non-medical caregivers especially since the elderly have problems with temperature regulation. A thermometer should always be used to assess the temperature as it is able to verify subtle changes in the body temperature that may not be obvious. Even without a thermometer, a person who is very hot or cold to touch should nevertheless be considered to be critically ill until this can be confirmed or excluded by a doctor.

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