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Senior Care Terms Explained

Common Senior Care Terms You Should Know

By , Caring.com senior editor
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If you feel like you need a translator every time you talk to a social worker, doctor, or other expert about your loved one's needs, you're right. The fields of geriatrics and eldercare are full of acronyms, abbreviations, and specialized terms. Use this list as your guide and you'll be able to join the conversation. An added benefit: Experts tend to take you more seriously -- and give you more useful information -- when you speak their language.

AAA DNR IADLs POLST
AD DPOA LTC PRN
ADL DSM MMSE PT
AHCD EHR or EMR NEMT RCF
CCRC GCM OT ROM
DME HIPAA PERS SNF


AAAs -- Area Agencies on Aging
Sometimes also called "Triple A" -- but completely different from auto agencies -- AAAs are nonprofit agencies that serve older adults in a certain geographic area, usually a city or county, or district. Established by the Older Americans Act, AAAs coordinate local services such as free ride services, Meals on Wheels, and other services that help older adults remain in their homes. To find the one nearest you, search our Area Agency on Aging Directory.


This term covers all types of documentation specifying your wishes for the type of care you prefer to receive at the end of life. Other terms often used are advance health care directive (AHCD) or living will. Learn more about advance directives.

ADL -- Activities of daily living
The term ADLs is used to define a cluster of basic personal care tasks such as feeding, using the toilet, getting dressed, and bathing.

AHCD -- Advance health care directive
Also known as a living will, an AHCD is the document that lays out a person's wishes for end-of-life care. The AHCD is important because it's used in medical situations when a patient can't speak for himself.

CCRC -- Continuing care retirement community
Sometimes also called a "life-care community," a CCRC refers to a retirement community that provides a continuum of care options from independent living to end-of-life hospice care. To find a CCRC near you, search our CCRC Directory.

DME -- Durable medical equipment
Used in hospitals, assisted living facilities, and when making a discharge plan, the term DME covers oxygen tanks, wheelchairs, lifts, hospital beds, and other medical equipment used in the home. Get tips on where to buy or borrow medical equipment.

DNR -- Do not resuscitate
A DNR is the doctor's order that no effort will be made to restart a patient's heart if it stops beating or to restart breathing if breathing stops. Legally binding, the DNR order implements your wishes as specified in an advance directive (AD), AHCD, or living will. Find out more about what a DNR is.

DPOA -- Durable power of attorney
A DPOA, sometimes prepared in combination with an AHCD, is a legal document that authorizes another person (usually a relative) to make financial decisions. A similar document is a DPOAH (durable power of attorney for health care), which specifically designates someone else to make healthcare decisions for you.

DSM -- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
Doctors, therapists, and social workers often mention DSM or DSM-IV ("DSM 4," the current version) when discussing a diagnosis such as depression or another mood disorder or mental illness. The official definition of a mental health condition frequently matters when determining insurance coverage, medication choices, and other issues.

EHR or EMR -- Electronic health record or electronic medical record
There are two types of electronic records used to compile medical records: EHRs and EMRs. The terms are used interchangeably, but there's a slight difference. EMRs are computerized files used within one healthcare organization, while EHRs can be shared among different health agencies. From the patient's perspective, however, they mean the same thing.

GCM -- Geriatric care manager
A geriatric care manager is someone you consult to help you make decisions about your future living arrangements, or those of a family member. A good GCM is familiar with the full range of services and housing options in an area and can make assessments, access resources, and assist with placement. Search our Geriatric Care Manager Directory to find a GCM near you.

HIPAA -- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
Pronounced "hippa," a signed HIPAA release form is required by doctors and medical personnel before they'll release medical information to another person, even a close family member.

IADLs -- Instrumental activities of daily living
This term is sometimes used interchangeably with ADLs, but technically it refers to a list of more complex activities. IADLs include handling transportation, using the telephone, managing finances, shopping and meal preparation, and home maintenance.

LTC -- Long-term care
This is an umbrella term used in planning future healthcare and living arrangements for seniors and people with disabilities. Long-term care can take place in the home (with an in-home caregiver) or in an assisted living facility or nursing home.

MMSE -- Mini-Mental Status Exam
The MMSE is used in diagnosing dementia. It consists of 30 questions that help a doctor assess memory, attention span, language skills, recall ability, and orientation to time and place (whether a person knows when and where the exam is taking place.) Learn the Pros and Cons of the 6 Main Tests for Alzheimer's.

NEMT -- Nonemergency medical transportation
NEMT includes any form of transportation to and from medical appointments that's not done by ambulance. NEMT can include wheelchair van, medi-car, taxicab, service car, private automobile, even air transport or ambulance if it's nonemergency. In some cases, nonemergency medical transportation may be covered by Medicare.

OT -- Occupational therapy/therapist
Learning or relearning the skills required for independent living is called occupational therapy. OT is included in rehabilitation after surgery, stroke, and many other conditions. Search our Home Healthcare Directory to find an occupational therapist near you.

PERS -- Personal emergency response system
Also called a medical emergency response system, a PERS is a push-button device that lets seniors living in their own homes call for help in an emergency. A PERS is a small transmitter, worn around the neck or wrist, that sends a signal to an emergency response center or a personal contact. Get tips on how to buy a PERS.

POLST -- Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment
More comprehensive than an AD or AHCD, a POLST is a relatively new document that summarizes all of a person's wishes regarding life-saving treatment options. Also called MOLST, or "medical orders for life-sustaining treatment," it allows patients to express their wishes about the use of CPR, feeding tubes, ventilators, and other life-extending measures.

PRN -- Pro re nata
This is a Latin term meaning "according to the circumstances." It's used by medical staff to describe a medication, treatment, or service that's recommended on an as-needed basis.

PT -- Physical therapy/therapist
PT consists of exercise, massage, therapeutic equipment, and other services to build strength and regain movement that's been lost due to injury or illness. To find a physical therapist near you, search our Home Healthcare Directory.

RCF -- Residential care facility
This term refers to living arrangements that include 24-hour supervision but may not include full medical services. RCFs are designed to serve seniors who need help with activities of daily living (ADLs). A related term is board and care homes or facilities; also known as RCFE (residential care facility for the elderly). If you need a residential care facility for your loved one, start your search in our Assisted Living Directory.

ROM -- Range of motion
Doctors use this term when talking about joints such as elbows, knees, hips, wrists, and shoulders, to define the full amount of potential movement in the joint. Learn more about how physical therapists improve range of motion.

SNF -- Skilled nursing facility
A skilled nursing facility is usually defined as one that provides round-the-clock nursing care and rehabilitation services. SNFs are certified by Medicare and are typically the highest level of care available after hospitalization. The term may be used interchangeably with nursing home, but not all nursing homes are SNFs. For more about SNFs and nursing homes, see Nursing Homes Explained.