It’s a story that’s all too familiar for many families; an elderly loved one can be living independently and functioning quite well until they are admitted to hospital for an injury or illness and suddenly their health starts spiraling downhill quickly. Hospitalization, with all its disruptions and stress, can lead to a cascade of health problems for older adults. Re-admission is common among seniors and hospitalization often hastens a move into assisted living.
The term “post-hospital syndrome” was first coined in 2013 by Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a Yale University cardiologist. He recognized the significant toll being admitted to hospital takes on older adults in particular. Sleep is constantly interrupted, surroundings are unfamiliar, meals are unappealing and bed rest can quickly lead to a loss of muscle strength and balance. Changes in medications can have unpredictable side effects and seniors are more likely to have episodes of delirium during a hospital stay.
According to a recent New York Times report, during the 60 to 90 day period following discharge from hospital, patients are most vulnerable to lingering health risks including falls, heart attacks as result of stress, pneumonia and increased frailty. Hospital stays can be very disorienting and frightening for elderly adults but families can help by making sure patients have easy access to hearing aids, glasses, dentures and canes or walkers to ensure they can remain mobile, more aware of their surroundings and able to get adequate nutrition. Asking that sleep not be interrupted at night unless absolutely necessary can also help older patients to recover better during a hospital stay. Disrupting natural circadian rhythms can have an adverse effect on cognition, physical function, immune function and mood.
Studies have also found that patients who get dressed in their own clothes and are up and moving as quickly as possible during a hospital stay lose less muscle mass and tend to recover better. Most hospitals will also allow friends and families to bring patients in their favorite foods to help prevent weight loss and malnutrition which can impede recovery.