Image: Medical doctor © Corbis

Recently I dealt with the loss of my father and helping my mother cope with her loss.

As some of you know, it's an incredibly painful experience -- and it's even worse if you're dealing with an overstretched health-care system.

Like a lot of older folks, Dad faced a series of medical problems. First, he had knee surgery. Once back home, he fell, leading him to return to a rehabilitation facility. While there, he developed pneumonia.

What made it more challenging is that Mom didn't think the primary doctor was responsive or available, which caused a delay in treatment. Even the nurse said the doctor spread himself too thin.

Don't let this happen to you. There are things you can do to make sure your loved one gets better care.

Fire your doctor

What people don't realize is that they can fire doctors, Mom said.

True. Just because you've been assigned a doctor -- in a hospital emergency room, for example -- doesn't mean you have to stay with that physician.

"We should approach our relationship with our doctors like we do a relationship with anyone else," said my sister-in-law and long-term health care expert and consultant Christine Openshaw.

"Sometimes we spend more time interviewing a potential painter than a doctor, so talk to your physician early. Ask questions like: "What are your philosophies? What kind of care do you provide?" If you've had an issue and they're not responsive, they tell you it's all in your head, don't encourage you to get another opinion or don't offer multiple solutions, it may be time to change doctors."

There are times this might make sense, like when your loved one is taken to the emergency room. There, you might get assigned the doctor on call, who may now be the physician responsible for coordinating your loved one's care. But is the doctor right? Is he or she they available? And is there a doctor who's more familiar with the patient's history and needs?

Name your home-care provider

Just like lenders that rely on their preferred title companies, so too might a doctor recommend a particular in-home care provider when the time comes. But as with a doctor, if you don't like the first person or company sent to your home, you can usually request another.

In our case, my mother chose to use a home-care provider she had used before -- a company that continued to check in on Dad's health over the months. If you've had a good experience with one, it might be wise to stick with it, even if that means questioning your doctor's recommendation.

"The dignity they gave him made all the difference," Mom said of the hospice care.