Best Practices

A Primary Care Provider’s Guide to Cataract Surgery in the Very Elderly

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Some patients undergoing cataract surgery may not be candidates for topical or local anesthesia alone. Sedation is often used to reduce anxiety and discomfort of surgery, but very elderly patients have narrower margins of therapeutic safety because of advanced aged or medical comorbidities. Since patients need to follow basic commands in the OR for ideal surgical execution, general anesthesia may need to be considered for those with dementia, deafness, anxiety attacks, or language barriers. Although there are no published investigations on the risks of general anesthesia in patients undergoing cataract surgery, a procedure with minimal blood loss and relatively short surgical time, age alone is not a contraindication for general anesthesia.35 Communication among eye surgeons, PCPs, and anesthesiologists is needed to weigh the risk of surgery with the level of sedation (or anesthesia) required to guarantee a controlled OR environment.31

Postsurgical Care

Although cataract surgery is a less invasive procedure than it was in the past, full postoperative recovery regularly spans a month. During this time, proper healing relies on the regular administration of eye drops and a refrain from heavy lifting, straining, and eye rubbing. Very elderly patients may need varying degrees of assistance with postsurgical care. For example, adherence to the regimen of eye drops can be complicated by decreased dexterity from arthritis and difficulty remembering the administration schedule in some patients. Reliable transportation also is an important factor as patients are routinely scheduled for postoperative visits at the 1- day, 1-week, and 1-month mark. PCPs can assist in ensuring patients have prearranged assistance for eye care and transportation to and from appointments. Additionally, very elderly patients with a history of constipation may benefit from stool softeners and/or laxatives to help prevent straining.


The limited literature on clinical outcomes of cataract surgery in the very elderly indicates that most have successful surgery and improved postoperative QOL.22 Much of the benefits derived from cataract surgery in the very elderly can be ascribed to thoughtful preoperative evaluation and planning with the PCP.

A summary of pertinent considerations is presented in an algorithm showing the interdisciplinary flow of decision making and management of very elderly patients with significant cataracts (Figure). This collaboration includes but is not limited to the decision to proceed with surgery, a discussion of alternative options, medical optimization prior to surgery, selection of appropriate anesthesia, and ensuring sufficient support for postoperative care.

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