The Psychological Effect of a Hospital Stay on Seniors

By Ruby Cemental

When your senior loved one is discharged after a hospital stay, it's a time for celebration. They're back to their daily routine and surrounded by the familiar people and places they love. But it's important to be aware of the psychological impact a hospital stay can have on your loved one. The stress of a hospital stay can turn into a decline in an elderly patient's mental and physical health, slowing down their long-term recovery, well-being, and quality of life.

Cognitive Decline

A 2012 study from Neurology suggested that in elderly patients, cognitive declines more than double after a hospital stay, affecting patients' thinking and memory skills. The longer the hospitalization, the greater the effect. Why? One possible cause is delirium, a sudden change in mental function that happens with about 20 percent of hospital patients. These people experience confusion, disorientation, and agitation while hospitalized. Doctors believe that the effects of delirium, once thought to be temporary, may actually linger and cause a long-term cognitive decline. 

Other possible explanations include uncontrolled blood sugar; patients experiencing small, undetectable strokes; or a lack of mental stimulation during the length of the stay. Boredom is a common problem among hospital patients, who may have little to do besides watch a small number of channels on an overhead TV or browse a very limited number of books and magazines.

If your senior loved one is in the hospital, visit as often as you can to give them much-needed mental stimulation. Consider bringing a care package to keep them sharp when you can't be there: bring favorite books, magazines, crafts, or activities like crossword puzzles to keep their minds engaged and help stave off a boredom-induced decline in function. 

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. 

That means once these patients are discharged, they're less able to care for themselves. The psychological effect of that helplessness can be profound. Independence and being able to take care of ourselves in basic ways is something we take for granted in our younger years. Admitting you need assistance to bathe, dress, or get up and walk is a psychological hurdle that many seniors struggle with.

Lingering Stress

Hospital stays can be a life-changing event for patients. It's massive disruption of routine, and it's isolating. The patients' loved ones have lives of their own, and can't stay by a bedside all day to provide companionship. Nurses and assistants are even busier. The longer the stay, the harder it becomes for the patient to remember his or her life outside of the hospital, and how to resume it upon discharge. The stress of this disruption and isolation can have a powerful dampening effect on the immune system, delaying recovery even after discharge. 

Loss of Power 

Seniors who are hospitalized often don't take long to start feeling out of control--especially if others are in charge of making decisions for them. You may even find yourself pressuring your loved one to accept treatment they would rather decline or to accept hospitalization even when they'd rather not, simply because it's the logical choice. That loss of power, however, can leave seniors struggling long after the hospitalization is over. 

Comforting a loved one who is hospitalized can be a difficult process, 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. To be more prepared for the lingering effects of a hospital stay, review our Hospital to Home Guide

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Tags: Hospital