senior lady in hospital being assisted by nurse

Understanding Hospital-Acquired Delirium in Older Adults

Routine trips to the hospital for an older adult with a chronic illness can be an unwanted but necessary part of life to maintain maximum health and wellbeing. But, could that routine hospital stay actually be the culprit in a growing and disturbing trend—hospital-acquired delirium?

Affecting as many as 7 million Americans hospitalized each year, the triggers for developing delirium seem to be related to heavy sedation and use of ventilators in intensive care units, as well as longer hospital stays; but delirium is occurring among those recovering from routine and easily treated conditions as well. Other potential causes include use of anti-anxiety medications, and perhaps even the hospital environment itself. And, it can linger on for months after a patient is discharged.

Coined “ICU psychosis” 30 years ago by Sharon Inouye, a geriatrician and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, studies focused on hospitalization delirium prevention are now underway, since it’s estimated that as many as 40% of cases are preventable, and, according to Inouye, “There still aren’t good treatments for it once it occurs.”

Effects from the delirium can be severe, in both memory and cognitive issues but also commonly displaying as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, with flashbacks and hallucinations. For the elderly, these symptoms are particularly troubling, as they may not have the capacity to describe what happened to them or how they’re feeling, and can result in a misdiagnosis of psychosis or dementia.

The good news is that hospitals are recognizing and taking steps to reduce the potential for delirium by more carefully prescribing certain anti-anxiety medications and tranquilizers, limiting use of restraints, and creating a more soothing environment with less light and quieter alarms to ensure more normalcy in patients’ sleep-wake cycles. Nursing and medical schools nationwide are also including delirium training as part of their curriculum, and a number of hospitals have implemented the HELP program (Hospital Elder Life Program) for their senior patients, offering visits from trained volunteers to provide companionship and help with staying oriented.

Want to learn more about hospital-acquired delirium, and how it differs from dementia? Contact Harmony Home Health & Hospice at 1-877-I-NEED-CARE and we’ll be happy to answer your questions and share some valuable resources. For additional information about our top-rated home health care services in Orem, Ogden, Salt Lake City and nearby communities, please visit our Service Area page.