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The Psychological Effect of a Hospital Stay on Seniors

By Eric Carter

While time in the hospital can help a senior physically, it can have adverse effects on their mental health. Treatment can turn to trauma. The stress of a hospital stay can ultimately result in a decline of an elderly patient's mental and physical health, slowing down their long-term recovery, well-being, and quality of life. In fact, a 2012 study from Neurology suggested that the risk for cognitive declines more than doubles for seniors after a hospital stay. If you are caring for a senior after a hospital stay, here are some of the psychological effects to be aware of. 

Anxiety & Depression 

It’s common for hospital patients to feel anxious or depressed. And the risk of anxiety and depression increases for females and for seniors who have chronic conditions and lack for family support. The risk is also directly proportional to the length of a hospital stay. So, the longer a senior is in the hospital, the more likely they are to suffer from anxiety or depression even after their discharge home. 

Without lots of mental stimulation, seniors may dwell on their fears and uncertainties around their health, growing anxiety around their condition or even death. Hours of boredom and isolation can also cause them to feel lonely and depressed.  

Delirium 

Up to a third of seniors over 70 experiences delirium in the hospital, which is a sudden change in mental function. Delirium leads to confusion, disorientation, and agitation while hospitalized and even beyond. Doctors believe that the effects of delirium, once thought to be temporary, may actually linger and cause a long-term cognitive decline.  

But delirium can be difficult to detect in the hospital. Many seniors in an emergency room will go to the ER, where nurses and doctors will look to treat their immediate physical needs. But the ER is a very busy place and can be a stressful environment. Plus, seniors are seen by professionals who don’t know their personality or medical history, making it hard to diagnose and treat delirium.  

RELATED CONTENT: Fun Activities for Seniors in the Hospital 

Physical Decline 

For elderly patients, a hospital stay can bring new health issues and disabilities to the forefront. Because hospital patients are typically bedridden for much of the day, they become weaker and less able to resume their daily routine after discharge. Research shows that about a third of patients over 70 and over half of the patients over 85 leave the hospital with a greater level of disability than when they arrived.  

This physical toll can also result in a mental toll. As you know, there is a strong link between physical and mental health. Physical decline can cause a senior to lose independence, feel depressed, lose confidence in themselves, and affect other aspects of their mental health.  

Lingering Stress 

Hospital stays can be a life-changing event for patients. Staying at the hospital is a massive disruption of routine. It can be isolating and scary. Patients may not have anyone at their bedside to comfort them, and nurses are in and out of the room all day, busy with other patients. The longer a patient is in the hospital, the harder it can be for them to remember what their regular routine was.  

All of this change can put a lot of stress on a senior, especially if they have dementia or another condition that makes changes in routine difficult. This stress may become so severe that a senior develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a hospital stay. Stress at any level can have a powerful dampening effect on the immune system, delaying recovery and decreasing quality of life after discharge.  

Loss of Independence 

While in the hospital, seniors may feel like they don’t have any control. With doctors and nurses coming in all day, making decisions about their health, it can be easy for a senior to feel like they’re losing independence or like they don’t have a say in their own health. And this feeling can continue after discharge. Physical limitations may prevent a senior from resuming their normal routine. Family members may step in to help but inadvertently keep seniors from doing the things that they are able to do.  

Losing independence can be a big mental battle — even without the added stress of poor physical health. It can be frustrating for seniors and cause them to feel embarrassed, worthless, hopeless, and depressed.  

RELATED CONTENT: Hospital to Home Step-by-Step Guide 

Tips to Minimize These Risks 

As a family member or caregiver of a senior in the hospital, there are many things you can do to help minimize the negative psychological effects. Here are some ideas: 

  • Visit the senior in the hospital either in person or via video chat or phone call. 
  • Help your loved one feel comfortable in the hospital by bringing some items from home (like their blanket, photos, mobility aids, favorite books, etc.). 
  • Allow your loved one to do things as independently as possible upon returning home — don’t baby them. 
  • Encourage physical activity and mobilization if the senior is able. Chair exercises can help them stay moving even if they are limited to the hospital bed. 

Comforting a loved one who is hospitalized can be difficult, especially if they aren't able to articulate what they're feeling. Ensuring that there is someone on hand to provide support, however, can make a hospitalized loved one feel more confident and cared for. Reach out to the nearest Caring Senior Service to get assistance from a professional caregiver.   

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Tags: Hospital