Hospital stays tend to be especially stressful for seniors, who must give up the familiar surroundings of home in exchange for the strange environment of a medical facility. However, there are many things that a senior’s spouse, children or other caregiver can do to reduce the stress and anxiety from an aging loved one’s experience in the hospital.
Here are some helpful tips: For starters, be aware that in recent years, geriatric specialists increasingly have called attention to the phenomenon known as hospital-acquired delirium, a temporary form of mental impairment that may affect seniors in a hospital setting, especially those in an intensive care unit. This condition, common even among patients who have not previously shown signs of dementia, can lead to complications, lengthen the hospital stay and result in problems even after the patient returns home. According to the Harvard Medical School, hospital-acquired delirium is “the most common complication of hospitalization among older people.”
To help prevent its onset or lessen its effects, experts recommend the following:
- Take along to the hospital a few items that are familiar or even cherished by your loved one, such as family photos or a favorite article of clothing.
- To the extent possible, familiarize your loved one with the immediate environment of his or her room and the hallway. This may help to remove some of the disorientation he or she may feel.
- When visiting, talk about topics with which you and your loved one are mutually familiar, and which he or she enjoys. Stimulate the conversation with interesting news of family and friends. Take walks in the hallway together, if practical, after advising the nursing staff of your intentions.
- Try to time your visits with the serving of meals. Having company during meals often stimulates the patient to be more enthusiastic about the food and to consume more. Bring a favorite food treat to supplement the meal, if doing so does not violate any dietary restrictions. Also, encourage your loved one to drink water and other fluids to guard against dehydration, which can contribute to delirium. If your loved one enjoys reading, make sure there is ample access to the types of reading material – books, e-books, magazines -- he or she enjoys.
In general, to help minimize stress, do all you can to keep your loved one stimulated and mentally connected to his or her home life, family and friends while he or she is in the hospital.
Other ways to help your loved one during a hospital stay include:
- Bring a complete and accurate list of your loved one’s medications and dosing schedule and provide it to the nursing station. Make sure the nurses and hospital staff physician are aware of any problems your loved one may have with taking medications.
- Keep in mind that certain medications, including sedatives, sometimes can precipitate delirium. If you suspect that your loved one may be receiving too much sedation, do not hesitate to raise the issue with hospital staff.
- Bring a small amount of cash, no more than a few dollars to cover incidentals. Discourage your loved one from bringing jewelry and other valuables.
- Make sure to stay abreast of the hospital’s plans for your loved one’s discharge, especially if he or she will need a rehabilitation facility before returning home. Decisions about when to discharge a patient are heavily influenced by Medicare reimbursement rules. Research rehab centers as early as possible, preferably before your loved one enters the hospital.
Finally, be aware that most hospitals have social workers on staff who can provide counselling, help resolve issues and assist in finding sources of supplementary services in the community. Get to know the social worker assigned to your loved one as soon as you can. It can be a big step toward alleviating your anxieties, as well as those of your loved one.