Senior Terms Defined

Managing an elder’s health is complicated. Sometimes it can even seem like the health care industry has a language all its own. Because the professionals who provide healthcare need to refer to very specific conditions and circumstances, they’ve developed a specialized vocabulary.

But these health-related terms that make it easier for professionals to communicate, can seem like jargon to seniors and their caregivers, until they master the definitions. In this section you’ll find the definitions of many of the terms used by healthcare providers. We hope it helps you to understand and better communicate with your healthcare providers.


Glossary Listings:

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  • Activities of Daily Living (ADLs):

    This term is used to describe daily functions, including getting dressed, eating, taking a shower or bath, going to the bathroom, and getting into a bed or chair. The amount of help an elder needs with ADLs is one factor in determining the appropriate level of care.

  • Acute Care:

    Hospital care for accidents, new and severe incidents of illness or conditions that are rapidly worsening. This is different from long-term residential care for a chronic illness.

  • Advance Directives:

    Written instructions in which a person states his or her wishes regarding medical treatment in the event of mental incompetency or an inability to communicate, and designation of someone (health care proxy or agent) to make medical decisions. A living will and power of attorney are related terms. See (web section on palliative care)

  • Alzheimer’s Disease:

    Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease. It is characterized by memory lapses, confusion, emotional instability, and progressive loss of mental ability as well as decline in physical function. Alzheimer’s disease is a cause of dementia.

  • Ambulatory Care:

    This term refers to care given in a doctor’s office, clinic or other facility. It comes from the word ambulate which means walking, as the patient can come and go (walk in/walk out) rather than stay overnight.

  • Assisted Living or Assisted Living Facility (ALF):

    Residences for people who do not need nursing home care, but want to live in a supportive setting. The services available vary and can include meals, social and recreational activities, and some health care services.

  • Assistive Technology:

    For those who need assistance to remain at home there’s an array of devices available to help elders manage their health and medication needs. Many people are familiar with the PERS devices – the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” device. There are a range of Telehealth options, many of which can provide a link to a medical professional and allow for regular monitoring and review to maximize their safety and independence through a regular phone line.

  • Bed Sores:

    Also called pressure sores, or may be referred to by their medical name, decubiti (de-CUBE-it-eye). These are wounds on the patient’s body that occur because of the pressure of being in one position for too long (bed or wheelchair) on the thin skin of the elderly. They are categorized in stages, with Stage IV (four) being the most serious.

  • Beneficiary:

    The person who receives (benefits from) services from a health insurance plan, Medicare or Medicaid, or the person designated as the recipient of funds or property in a will, trust, or insurance policy.

  • Care Plan:

    A written plan that details all elements of an elder’s care, including services provided by home health aides, nurses, therapists, and family caregivers. This is particularly helpful when making the transition from acute care or short-stay rehab to a nursing home or patient’s home.

  • Caregiver Support Group:

    A group of individuals who gather in person or online to provide support, resources and coping strategies. Support groups are a place to address the challenges and isolation of caregiving and to discuss feelings with others in similar circumstances. To be part of an online caregivers support group click here or visit our Links section

  • Caregiver:

    An individual who provides help and support on a regular, on-going basis. This can be a “formal” caregiver – someone whose job it is to provide regular help and assistance (often a home health aide) or a “family” or “informal” caregiver, which is someone with a relationship (family, friend or neighbor) to the elder, who chooses to provide the needed on-going support.

  • Certified Home Health Agency (CHHA):

    For those at home, needing therapy for a defined period, a CHHA provides nursing, social work, home care, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and other rehabilitation services to individuals in their own homes, as prescribed by a physician. Medicare will cover costs when certain conditions are met.

  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA):

    An individual who has been trained and certified to help patients with their basic quality of life needs. ). A CNA helps patients under the supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN) or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN).

  • Chronic Illness:

    Physical or mental disability that lasts a long time or recurs (goes and comes back again). Treatment goals are to manage the illness and its symptoms, not cure them.

  • Cognitive Impairment:

    Refers to diminished, weakened, or damaged mental capabilities – language, reasoning, reading and writing and memory both recent and long-term.

  • Decubiti:

    (de-CUBE-it-eye). The medical term for bed sores or pressure sores. These are wounds on the patient’s body that occur because of the pressure of being in one position for too long (bed or wheelchair) on the thin skin of the elderly. They are categorized in stages, with Stage IV (four) being the most serious.

  • Dementia:

    A condition characterized by changes in the brain that lead to symptoms including loss of intellectual capacity, changes in personality, mood and sociability and impaired ability to speak, remember and perform everyday tasks.

  • Discharge Planner:

    The individual, often at a hospital, who will detail elements of a patient’s care when they are leaving a facility, and may, from the time of admission, help navigate elements of a patient’s coverage and care. May be a nurse or social worker. The discharge plan is the roadmap for the patient’s continued care.

  • Do Not Intubate (DNI) Order:

    A DNI informs medical personal that the patients does not want to have a breathing tube inserted if the patient stops breathing on his/her own. This is one element of an advance directive. It is not the same as a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate Order).

  • Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order:

    A DNR order informs medical personal that the patients does not want to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other actions to restart a person’s heart or breathing once it has stopped. A DNR order must be offered to patients and families by law. A DNR order is part of an advance directive and is separate from a DNI (Do Not Intubate) order.

  • Dual Eligibles:

    This term refers to individuals who meet the financial and medical requirements of both Medicare and Medicaid.

  • Elder Law Attorney

    A lawyer who specializes in issues relevant to seniors, like wills, trusts, advance directives, power of attorney, as well as elder rights issues.

  • Family Caregiver:

    This term is used for relatives, friends and partners of an individual who oversee and provide care for an elder. Can also be called an informal caregiver to distinguish from a formal caregiver (trained and paid health care worker).

  • Family Health Care Decisions Act:

    The FHCDA, which became effective on June 1, 2010, allows a patient’s family member, partner or friend to make health care decisions for them is that patient is in a hospital or nursing home, lacks the capacity to make decisions and did not sign a health care proxy or leave health care instructions.

  • Formal Caregiver:

    A trained and paid health care worker.

  • Formulary:

    A list of prescription drugs covered by a health insurance plan or available in a hospital or nursing home setting. Availability of certain medications may vary by plan or facility.

  • Geriatric Care Managers:

    A geriatric care manager is a professional who specializes in assessing and arranging care for the elderly. Geriatric care managers often have training in gerontology, social work, nursing or counseling, and have extensive knowledge about the cost, quality and availability of elder services in the senior’s community. Some long-term care insurance policies will pay for geriatric care management services. To find out how a geriatric care manager can help with your eldercare needs….

  • Geriatrician:

    A doctor who has special training and experience in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease in seniors.

  • Guardian:

    This is the legal term for the individual named by a judge to manage an elder’s financial and personal affairs when that elder is found by the court to no longer be competent to do so.

  • Guardianship:

    This refers to the process of having the court name a guardian. It can be complex and costly, and tie up an individual’s affairs while in process. This process can be avoided by having advance directives, and meeting with an elder lawyer to make arrangements before they become necessary.

  • Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO):

    A coordinated health care program that offers a package of health care benefits to those insured.

  • Health monitor device:

    Any device that assists a patient with the tracking and management of a health condition. One well known device is the PERS, the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” device. To read more about these Telehealth devices available through Jewish Home, read about our HealthMonitor® Service:

  • HIPAA:

    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of an individual’s medical information. ). HIPAA sets out regulation as to how health care providers are to keep this information safe and secure, and to prevent personal information from being shared with unauthorized users, including employers and marketers.

  • Home Delivered Meals:

    Also called Meals-on-Wheels, these are programs that deliver meals to homebound individuals and frail elders. Some programs request a donation, while other may be free.

  • Home Health Aides:

    Individuals who provide personal care at home by assisting with eating, dressing, oral hygiene, bathing, as well as light household tasks. These services may be covered by health insurance if ordered by a physician.

  • Homemaker Services:

    For relatively independent elders who just need a hand with some tasks, homemaker services can shop, do laundry, light cleaning, meal preparation, and escorting, but are not responsible for personal care.

  • Hospice:

    A health-care facility for the terminally ill that emphasizes pain control and emotional support for the patient and family, rather than taking extraordinary measures to prolong life. Can also refer to support services provided at home. Click here to see how hospice differs from palliative care.

  • Incontinence:

    Loss of control of bladder or bowel movement.

  • Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs):

    This term refers to activities that are part of independent living, in addition to ADLs (activities of daily living). They include tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, paying bills, doing laundry, and taking medications as ordered. The ability of an elder to manage IADLs is taken into consideration when assessing whether an elder will thrive in a home environment.

  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN):

    These trained, licensed health care professionals report to registered nurses and doctors. They can provide basic care such as checking vital signs (temperature, blood pressure, and pulse), giving injections and enemas, monitoring catheters, applying wound dressings and treating bedsores.

  • Living Will:

    This is one type of Advance Directive, which outlines the individual’s wishes for treatment in case s/he becomes unable to make such choices.

  • Long-Term Care (LTC):

    This term is used to describe the care needed by people with chronic health problems or dementia who are unable to manage their own daily needs. Long term care may be provided in a nursing home, but may also be provided by caregivers in the patient’s home.

  • Long-Term Care Insurance:

    This is private insurance which pays for expenses for long-term care at home or in a facility other than a hospital. Medicare and Medicare supplemental insurance (Medigap) do not pay for this type of care. LTC policies offer a wide range of benefits, and costs vary by company and offerings.

  • Managed Care Plans:

    A coordinated system for delivering and financing health care services with an aim towards cost efficiency. Some are HMOs.

  • Medicaid:

    A health insurance program for low income individuals which is jointly funded by the state and federal governments. States determine eligibility and covered services.

  • Medical Adult Day Care:

    A non-residential program which provides care coordination, therapeutic, rehabilitative, and support activities, including nursing, assistance with the activities of daily living (ADLs), social work services, meals, and possible transportation to elders who are physically frail or have mental challenges. These services are provided in a protected setting for a portion of the day and can be paid for through Medicaid or privately.

  • Medicare:

    A federal health insurance program for people aged 65 or older, or for individuals with certain disabilities regardless of age.

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP):

    A registered nurse with additional advanced training who can provide some services previously only performed by MDs, including, the diagnosis and management of most common, and many chronic, illnesses and the ability to prescribe medications.

  • Nursing Home or Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF):

    A residential facility that provides 24 hour care to individuals who are unable to care for themselves and need extensive medical care because they are in need of rehabilitative services, are chronically ill, suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia or are disabled.

  • Occupational Therapist (OT):

    A trained and licensed health care professional who helps patients relearn Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) and suggests adaptations to the home environment to enable greater independence.

  • Palliative Care:

    Palliative Care is a comprehensive approach to care for people with chronic or end-stage illness. It focuses on relieving patients’ pain and other distressing symptoms, as well as minimizing suffering by addressing a person’s psychological and spiritual needs. Palliative care can be provided at any time in the course of an illness, no matter how long the person is expected to live, and may be used along with curative treatments. While often discussed with hospice care, there are differences. See the difference between hospice and palliative care here:

  • Patient Bill of Rights:

    This Bill, first passed in 1997, the Patients’ Bill of Rights set standards for the healthcare system about doctor-patient relationships and to a patients’ rights to information and care. Included in this Bill is the right of the patient to be treated with dignity and respect; the obligation of the provider to offer equal care regardless of whether the patient is enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid, is a veteran or government employee covered by an employer or private health insurance, or even if  the patient has no healthcare coverage.  The Bill says that patients have the right to know treatment options and take part in decisions their your care. See the full Bill here:

    In 2010, a new Patient’s Bill of Rights was created along with the Affordable Care Act. This bill of rights was designed to give new patient protections in dealing with insurance companies and will be phased in over a period of time. The new Bill and an explanation can be seen here :

  • PERS (Personal Emergency Response Systems):

    This is sometimes referred to as the “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” device.  It is a device that allows an elder to easily call for care in an emergency. Some systems have programs that call for help when there has been no interaction with an elder for a preset period of time, while others are designed to detect falls.  A PERS is one of the many Telemedicine options available.

  • Physical Therapist (PT):

    A licensed professional trained to treat people with impaired motor functions. ). PTs use exercise, massage, and other techniques to restore a person’s strength and functional abilities, that have been hampered due to injury or illness, and help patients improve their mobility and manage their pain. They can be an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.

  • Physician Assistant (PA):

    A trained and licensed health care professional who may examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses and write prescriptions under the supervision of a doctor.

  • Post acute:

    This refers to care given following a severe illness, hospitalization or traumatic event, when a patient is well enough to be out of a traditional hospital setting, but not well enough to return home. Often used to describe a type of rehabilitation.

  • Power of Attorney (POA):

    A written authorization  that allows one person to act on another’s behalf.  This can be granted for a specific set of responsibilities or for more general actions making in personal or financial matters.  Power of Attorney is one element of advance directives.

  • Pressure Sores:

    Also called bed sores, or may be referred to by their medical name, decubiti. These are wounds on the patient’s body that occur because of the pressure of being in one position for too long (bed or wheelchair) on the thin skin of the elderly.  They are categorized in stages, with Stage IV (four) being the most serious.

  • Primary Care Provider (PCP):

    This term refers to the health care professional who provides preventive care and diagnoses and treats common medical ailments.  The Primary Care Provider practices in an office in the community rather than in a hospital or other facility and will refer patients to specialists for complex or acute conditions.

  • Provider:

    This term refers to either an individual or an agency that delivers health care or social services.  A provider can be a doctor, nurses, physical therapist, social worker, or other health professional, or a facility like a hospital or nursing home, a home care agency or a business that provides equipment or other health related services.

  • Registered Nurse (RN):

    A health care professional who has graduated from a formal nursing education program and is licensed to practice by the state board. RNs who provide direct patient care observe, assess, and record symptoms, reactions, and progress, which provides the basis for care planning and intervention.  RNs educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.

    In addition to direct patient care and case management, RNs establish nursing practice standards, develop quality assurance procedures and conduct clinical research.

  • Rehabilitation (“Rehab”):

    Services to help individuals regain functionality lost due to an injury or illness. Rehabilitation may be given at the hospital, a nursing home, a special facility, or the patient’s home.  Post acute or Short-stay Rehab follows a traumatic event like a stroke, heart attack, injury or hospitalization.  Rehabilitation can be an ongoing process.

  • Resident:

    A person who lives in a nursing home or other long-term care setting.

  • Respite Care:

    Respite Care allows a primary caregiver to take a break, or tend to other obligations that mean being out of town. But finding adequate replacement support and care can be daunting.  It can be an adult day program, short term senior housing or nursing home care, or care provided in the home.

  • Senior Centers:

    Provide independent elders with a place for socializing and stimulation. Senior Centers offer an array of activities – classes, clubs, discussion groups, health screenings and even trips and meals. Based in the community, they can be run by neighborhood or civic groups, religious organizations or special interest affiliations.

  • Skilled Care or Skilled Nursing Care:

    This term is used to refer to health services that need to be provided by a trained licensed nurse, either at home or in a facility. Services can include administration of injections, dispensing or monitoring of intravenous tubes, and changing sterile dressings.

  • Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF):

    Another term for a nursing home. A residential facility that provides 24 hour care to individuals who are in need of rehabilitative services or are unable to care for themselves and need extensive medical care because they are who are chronically ill, suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia or are disabled.

  • Social Day Care:

    A non-residential program which offers supportive (but non-rehabilitative) services in a protected setting in a group setting.  Services may include recreational activities, social work services, hot meals, transportation, and occasionally, health services.  Social Day care is for adults who do not need daily medical attention.

  • Speech Therapist:

    Licensed health care professional who diagnoses and treats people with speech, language, or hearing problems.

  • State Health Insurance Program (SHIP):

    A New York State program that helps older adults with concerns about insurance, benefits, and claims.

  • Sub acute Care:

    This term is used to describe care given after a hospital stay that is provided in a less intensive setting, and refers to short term care.  This may also be referred to as are post acute care.

  • Surrogate Decision Maker:

    This is the person who the patient designates to make choices if he or she cannot do so. This is one step in creating advance directives.

  • Surrogate:

    This term is used in New York and some other states to describe a judge who has jurisdiction over the probate of wills and the settlement of estates.

  • Telehealth or Telemedicine:

    This is the broad term that refers to the delivery of health services and information via telecommunications technologies.  It can be used to describe a phone consultation; a video conference; robotic surgery; or an elder using a Health monitor device.

  • Visiting Nurse:

    This is a nurse who comes to a patient’s home to administer elements of a treatment or health maintenance plan provided by a doctor.  Jewish Home is one of the well-regarded companies who provide home care nursing services. Read more about this.

  • Will:

    This is a legal document that puts in writing an individual’s instructions for what to do with their money and other assets and their property and belongings after their death.