How To Recover From Surgery When You Live Alone

To address many acute and chronic health conditions, surgical intervention is often required to correct the issue. Once medically stable, individuals are discharged from hospital and sent to a short stay inpatient rehabilitation program or a longer stay convalescence care setting. In both of these settings, individuals are meant to recover to their former physical abilities with assistance of an exercise regime and support from staff.

It is important to note that beds and space in these rehab programs are usually limited due to their high demand, and there is frequently a waitlist. As a result, some people may be sent home for a short period of time while they wait for a bed to become available. In other cases, some patients opt to skip extended hospital stays or convalescent care all together and wish to recover from surgery on their own within their home.

This article will discuss why it is important to have someone monitor you after surgery, and will then highlight recovery tips and strategies for those that live alone.

Why Do You Need Someone To Stay With You After Surgery?

Surgery is a complex and delicate procedure, and having an unwanted reaction due to infection, bleeding or other complication can be common after an operation. While patients are monitored in a recovery room immediately after surgery, sometimes it takes time for these adverse issues to occur and display themselves.

Because hospital beds are in such demand, sometimes there is a quick turnaround time from surgery to discharge home. Given this short period of time, surgical complications may not show themselves until one has returned home.

Hospital discharge summaries normally provide a list of signs and symptoms one must look for after surgery, with instructions on what to do should something be observed. In most cases, it is best to return to the hospital for a re-evaluation if experiencing significant concerns or abnormal symptoms such as fever, breathing difficulty, etc.

A common complaint amongst those admitted to hospital is that they may have no living relatives or a nearby social support network. These people may say that there is “no one to stay with me after surgery” when informed that they are being discharged for a recovery at home. 

This is concerning because surgical complications can evolve rapidly and have deadly consequences. As a result it is recommended that someone be present and keep a watchful eye on you following an operation.

When there is a high risk of complications, hospital stays are generally extended for further monitoring after a surgery, however what can be done if one is deemed low risk and sent home without a good support network?

How To Recover From Surgery While At Home

We will now discuss how someone that lives alone can be monitored for adverse surgical complications and strategies to maximize recovery while at home:

  1. Continue hospital recommended exercises 

If medically cleared by the surgeon, hospital physiotherapists and occupational therapists see patients post op to initiate rapid activity and exercise. For many surgeries, early mobilization is considered good practice as clinical studies have shown this leads to better health outcomes, shorter recovery times with less time spent in hospital, and fewer long standing disabilities.

While in hospital, allied health care providers will continually monitor and adjust your therapy plan as you make strength improvements. When preparing to leave the hospital, a re-assessment is usually completed and you will be provided with training and a series of exercises that can be continued on your own at home.

When home, it is best to establish a routine where one engages in the therapeutic exercises as prescribed or as tolerance dictates. As strength and endurance improves, more exercises and intensity can be introduced as recommended by the therapists.

  1. Get assistive aids and equipment to support safety and rehab goals

Supportive equipment to maximize safety at home and help with rehab goals should be obtained prior to a hospital discharge. 

The inpatient allied therapists usually provide you with a resource list of recommended equipment and local medical vendors where suggested items can be obtained.

The following pieces of equipment and assistive aids can help with a range of activities such as:

tub-rail
sock-aid
stand-alone-toilet-safety-frame
senior-bed-rail

When installation is required, such as placing safety rails in the shower, medical vendors can complete the work for an additional fee.

  1. Obtain home care supports and in home rehabilitation

Should one have any challenges with returning home, community support may be available to assist with basic activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, and personal hygiene.

Furthermore, in home rehab may be available if one is unable to safely exit their home to attend an outpatient clinic or setting.

Ideally, community services would be set up prior to a discharge home, however some challenges with coping arise only after someone is home and does not have access to the support staff of the hospital.

For this reason, it is a good idea to arrange follow up with a primary care provider such as a physician, who may be able to arrange social services to assist you.

  1. Follow up with a primary care provider for outstanding medical issues

Hospitals are meant to address life threatening and serious health concerns. Once stabilized with no imminent threat to life or limb, individuals are discharged home and usually instructed to follow up with a primary care practitioner for outstanding medical concerns.

It is a good idea to follow up with primary care within 3-7 days of being released from hospital to ensure you receive optimal care for any changing health needs. Usually a discharge report summarizing one’s hospital course and a list of outstanding issues is transmitted to the family doctor for further investigation and treatment.

Here is a list of other ways primary care can help after a surgery:

Check surgical sites to make sure they are healing well and free of infection

For more serious operations, one may have extensive incision sites or surgical wounds. It is important that these are checked regularly to make sure they are healing well and have no signs of infection.

Some signs that the wound may be progressing in the wrong direction include:

  • Dressing is wet – a wound dressing that is consistently soaked with blood or moist from fluid may warrant a re-evaluation
  • Dressing is not intact – the dressing is not covering the surgical site itself and may have fallen off due to moisture or other reasons
  • Wound discharging fluid – a wound that is releasing pus or other abnormal quantities of fluid may be infected
  • Wound is odorous – a smelly wound may indicate possible infection
  • Wound has split open – sutures or stitches may have come undone and exposed the the flesh underneath (wound dehiscence)

Removal of staples, sutures, and stitches

Some surgeons prefer to inspect surgical sites at their follow up. However, their medical appointments may be further away, and stitches, sutures and staples may need to be removed before then. 

Nonabsorbable sutures and stitches can easily be removed at the doctor’s office. If ordered by a doctor and arranged ahead of time, an in-home nurse can use a removal kit to take out any threading or staples meant to hold a wound shut.

Requisition follow up blood tests and imaging

A family doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant may request further blood tests and diagnostic imaging to ensure that you remain stable medically and recovery is going as expected.

Surgery often takes a large physical toll on the body, so the results from these tests may prompt a change in one’s treatment plan or medication, and may even warrant further investigation.

  1. Arrange outpatient rehabilitation

One of the best ways to recover from surgery is through physical activity and rehab exercises. This can be completed in home with a hospital provided strengthening program, or in an outpatient clinic under the guidance of experienced rehab professionals.

Rehab in a hospital outpatient or clinic setting is superior to in home care for several reasons:

  • Access to a greater variety of strengthening and exercise equipment
  • Rehab staff deal with surgical patients on a daily basis, so they have the experience to facilitate a more rapid recovery
  • Visits are scheduled based on appointment, so there should be a minimal waiting time
  • Getting to the rehab setting can be considered a strengthening and conditioning activity in itself that promotes recovery
  1. Find a live-in caregiver or care assistant

After complex surgery or a lengthy hospital stay, individuals may experience deconditioning and need to adjust to a decreased level of endurance. For those that return home and live alone, not having the assistance of hospital staff can make it difficult to complete basic personal care tasks such as bathing or dressing.

Hiring a private live-in caregiver can help minimize this burden and also assist with other household tasks as needed.

A live-in caregiver is expensive, so it is important to consider how many hours of support one requires. For instance, an individual with reduced activity levels may not sweat as much, and may not need to bathe everyday.

If only a few hours per week of additional help is required, it will be more cost efficient to hire a care assistant from a home care agency that visits every other day or as needed.

  1. Use pain medication to improve recovery time

Following surgery, it is common to experience some pain and swelling. While these symptoms typically subside overtime, they can initially limit one’s ability to participate in rehab and may prevent optimal recovery.

Many people are fearful of getting addicted to medication and opt for no pain management, however poorly controlled postoperative pain can lead to complications and a need for prolonged rehab.

As a result, painkillers are used after surgery because the benefits are judged to outweigh the potential consequences of any side effects. Adequate pain control is meant to help boost tolerance for more activity and temporarily increase range of motion in the limbs, which translates to greater strength improvements and reduced recovery time.

  1. Hire support services for household chores and other daily activities

When returning home, there are often many household chores that need to be completed that were normally supported by the staff at the hospital. People may find it difficult to prepare meals, complete laundry, and do a host of other daily tasks.

Fortunately, many of these chores can be delegated to service providers and give someone that lives alone a greater ability to focus on rehabilitation.

People recovering from surgery may benefit from using:

  • Meal delivery services – improve how one eats by choosing from a wide menu range of frozen and warm meals that can be delivered to your door.
  • Housekeeping services – have outside help with energy demanding chores such as cleaning the bathroom, washing the floors, and taking out the garbage.

Click here to learn about more services that can help someone stay at home

  1. Get a medical alert monitoring system

If one does not live with others, it may be a good idea to obtain a medical alert system. These monitoring services provide a neck pendant or wristband that can be pushed to summon assistance in case of an emergency.

Depending on how one sets up their contact list, family or someone in their support network is called first to follow up on any triggered alerts. However, emergency services can be dispatched to your home for help if:

  • None of your primary contacts are reachable by phone
  • You ask for assistance through the home base that allows two way communication with the monitoring service

Some more advanced monitoring services have automatic fall detection features, which can send emergency services to the home even if one is unable to push the button due to injury or unconsciousness. Philips Lifeline is one such monitoring service that offers this fall detection function.

  1. Eat a balanced diet

A balanced diet high in nutrients and protein helps reduce the risk of vitamin deficiencies and supports muscle growth.

During any surgery there is some blood loss. For this reason consuming foods high in iron helps to avoid anemia by rebuilding any lost red blood cells that carry vital oxygen through the circulatory system.

Foods that are high in iron content include: red meat, dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, beans, iron-fortified cereals, quinoa, poultry, etc.

During a hospital stay, you will spend a large majority of the time in bed. This can lead to deconditioning and muscle loss. As one returns home, less time will be spent in bed, so naturally more activity will lead to the return of muscle mass. 

Consuming a diet that is high in protein promotes this muscle growth and helps the body heal any surgical wounds.

Foods that are high in protein content include: eggs, chicken and turkey breast, lentils, almonds, fish, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, etc.

For those that do not get enough protein through their diet, high protein nutritional shakes can be consumed as a supplement between meals to support muscle growth.

Important: Always consult a physician or dietician before altering your diet.