A stay in the hospital can be confusing, scary, and painful. When your older adult is seriously ill or after a medical emergency, they need extra support during their hospital stay.
1. Stay with them or visit as often as possible
It’s important to stay with your older adult or visit as often as you can. Familiar faces and trusted people who will watch out for their best interests are a great comfort.
Because your older adult is recovering from a serious health event, they may not be up to doing much. Gentle, low-key activities they may enjoy during a visit include:
- Sitting quietly together, perhaps holding hands or gently stroking their arm
- Softly listening to their favorite music
- Giving them a gentle massage on non-sensitive parts of the body
- Reading aloud from books or the newspaper
- Eating a meal together (you would bring your own)
- Telling them about what you, close family, and friends have been doing lately so they won’t feel left out
- Bringing a computer or tablet to watch a favorite show or movie together
2. Advocate and Monitor
Mistakes, especially with medication and food, often happen in hospitals and staff aren’t always around when needed for assistance.
When you’re with your older adult, make notes of the medication they’re being given to make sure it’s the correct drug at the correct dose, given at the right time. If other family and friends are available, work out a schedule to maximize coverage of hours and use a notebook to keep everyone informed.
It’s also important to check that your older adult is getting the right levels of medication. They shouldn’t be in pain or overmedicated. Improperly managed pain can slow the healing and recovery process. Overmedication can cause negative side effects and increases the chances of developing delirium.
Don’t assume that the staff is carefully reading the notes in your older adult’s chart (if there even are any). It’s necessary to make sure the nurse in charge and other staff are aware of any special needs and how to take care of those needs. If your older adult has dementia, dysphagia, severe arthritis, or other health conditions, they may need extra help and patience.
If your older adult has special needs for food, make sure to check all their food and beverages. They may need thickened drinks for dysphagia, a low salt diet for high blood pressure, low sugar for diabetes, etc. Things could get mixed up and they could get the wrong food or drinks. If they’re not aware enough to refuse the incorrect meal, they could accidentally eat or drink it and have a problem.
In terms of getting help, like assistance going to the bathroom or another blanket when they’re cold, sometimes it takes a strong advocate to get timely attention from busy hospital staff.
3. Anchor to reality to reduce the chance of developing delirium
Many cases of hospital-induced delirium are triggered by treatments that older adults are especially sensitive to, like large doses of anti-anxiety drugs and narcotics. Speak with the doctor to minimize the amount of these medications and, if you’re noticing negative side effects, ask them to make changes immediately.
Other cases of delirium are caused by the busy, noisy, brightly-lit environments where sleep is constantly interrupted. To reduce the risk, ask staff to lower the lights when possible, turn down noisy machines when possible, close the door to keep noise down, stay with them so they have a familiar face around, and arrange for them to get a maximum amount of sleep.
Periodic blood draws and vital sign readings are very disruptive to rest and sleep. Ask doctors and nurses if these can be done in coordination or less frequently (without harm to health). This keeps your older adult from being constantly poked and prodded, especially in the middle of the night.
You may also want to add some anchoring elements in their room. Make a large-print clock and calendar visible so if they like, your older adult can see the time and date. Add a family photo so they always have familiar faces to look at.
4. Make them more comfortable
Being in the hospital also means missing the comforts of home. Depending on the situation, it may help to bring in a few inexpensive items that would make them more comfortable.
Some items to consider:
- Moist wipes for comfortable toileting
- Skin moisturizer and lip balm
- Toiletry and frequently-used personal care items
- Non-skid slippers
- A cozy cardigan or robe
- An inexpensive radio or tape player for soft music
- A comforting blanket, doll, or stuffed animal
- Favorite books or magazines
5. Plan for discharge and post-hospital recovery
Even though your older adult is able to leave the hospital, they’ll still need extra care. They might even need an intense level of care for weeks or months.
Studies show that 40% of patients over 65 had medication errors after leaving the hospital. Even worse, 18% of Medicare patients discharged from a hospital were readmitted within 30 days.
Many of the issues that cause problems with recovery can be prevented if you and your older adult are well-prepared for hospital discharge.
A hospital discharge checklist is an essential tool that prepares for a successful recovery. It tells you key questions to ask doctors and nurses, what information is must-have, the level of care needed, and what supplies to get.
6. Assist with moving around and physical therapy
Moving around and doing prescribed therapy helps with recovery. Spending too much time lying in bed weakens muscles and increases the risk of blood clots, confusion, and bed sores. Of course, the priority is still to keep your older adult safe and not to overdo it.
If possible, go to any physical, occupational, or speech therapy sessions. Watch and take notes on what the therapist asks them to work on. Ask if there are exercises you can help them practice outside of the sessions.
Whenever possible, ask your older adult to take short walks or practice therapy exercises. With you at their side to keep them steady and safe, they’ll be able to increase their activity level and speed recovery.
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