Being hospitalized is never a pleasant experience for anyone, but hospitalization can prove especially hazardous for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Evidence has shown that dementia patients are at greater risk for having adverse outcomes following treatment in a hospital. Even a brief stay may worsen the symptoms of dementia and increase the likelihood of complications such as falls and malnourishment.
Fortunately, there are some things a caregiver can do to help make a hospital stay easier for a loved one with dementia.
- Preparation is key. Whether your loved one has a procedure scheduled at the hospital or they wind up in the emergency room unexpectedly, it’s important to have a few basic provisions on hand. Having a hospital kit already packed and ready to go can simplify this process, especially in emergency situations. It’s wise to include current insurance information and pertinent health information, such as a complete list of medications and a basic medical history. Of course, if you have durable medical power of attorney for your loved one, it’s important to bring a copy of this document as well. You may also want to include changes of clothing for both of you, a pen and paper to jot down information from the doctors and nurses, a few snacks, a spare phone charger, and perhaps a book, some magazines and a pair of headphones to keep you occupied.
- Keep communication open. Seniors with dementia experience varying levels of lucidity that may fluctuate from day to day, especially while in the hospital. It’s important to explain to your loved one why they are in the hospital, what is going to happen and how long they might be there. It’s okay to simplify explanations a little bit or even engage in some therapeutic lying if it helps them relax and cooperate. Try to be gentle and reassuring, especially if they are scared, confused or agitated. Hospital settings often exacerbate dementia symptoms like these because the patient’s daily routine is turned upside-down and it is very difficult for them to get quality sleep.
- Bring comfort objects. If your elderly loved one has an object that they fixate on and that helps keep them calm at home, bring it to the hospital. Things like photographs, a favorite blanket, a stuffed animal or even a small toy can help a person with dementia feel more at ease in an unfamiliar situation.
- Get a private room. While private rooms are not always available or affordable, opting for one will be more relaxing for both you and your loved one. With a shared hospital room, there’s twice the disruption, noise and coming and going of staff and visitors in the room, which can be very overwhelming for someone with dementia. Added privacy will also enable you and other family members to visit your loved one without worrying about disturbing other patients.
- Discuss dementia behaviors and health care wishes with staff. Be sure to speak with the doctor and attending nurses about common dementia symptoms your loved one exhibits and inquire about how outbursts and uncooperative patients are handled. Ask about the use of restraints (both chemical and physical) and voice your preferences for how staff should handle an emotional flare-up from your elderly loved one. Restraints should only be used as a last resort.
- Ask questions. Diligently ask as many questions as needed to understand your loved one’s diagnosis, what treatments they are receiving and how long recovery will take. Ask the doctor if any of the treatments might affect their behavior and/or mental state. Having a solid understanding of a senior’s medical condition throughout the process will help you prepare for important care decisions at the hospital and when it is time for them to be discharged. Will they need to recuperate at an in-patient rehabilitation facility? Might it be time for placement in a memory care unit, or can they be safely discharged back home?
- Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Tell every new hospital staff member you encounter during the hospital stay that your loved one has dementia. A study conducted by researchers from the University College London Medical School found that hospital workers were only able to identify a cognitively impaired person about 30 percent of the time. This information can seriously impact the quality and nature of a person’s care and experience in the hospital, so reiterate that your loved one is impaired and don’t worry about being a nuisance.
- Stay by their side. A familiar face can work wonders when it comes to keeping a senior calm at the hospital. Try to arrange to be with your loved one as much as possible, particularly in the evenings, during meals, and when medical tests and procedures such as IV insertions and vital sign checks are performed. It may not be possible for you to be at the hospital this often, so try to arrange for other family members to visit when you cannot.