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When Your Elderly Loved One is in the Hospital

by Vicki Rackner, MD


It’s tough for anyone to be a hospital patient. The elderly and people with serious, long-term conditions face special challenges. You can help. 

Here are some tips to make hospital stays better:

Bring Familiar Things 

Have you ever awakened in a hotel room wondering what city you’re in or what day it is?Now imagine someone suffering from early stages of dementia who counts on familiar surroundings and routines to keep oriented.  Remove him or her from a known environment, mix in exhaustion and fatigue, then add the influence of medication, and you have a recipe for confusion and disorientation. 

You can help your loved one stay oriented by bringing familiar things to the hospital such as family photos, a favorite pillow, favorite paintings, or soothing music. Certain familiar scents can help your loved one remember a better time. Maybe they have a favorite shirt or nightgown they like to wear at night. Be sure to ask nurses before you bring flowers, as flowers may cause allergic reactions or compromise sterility in a room.  

You may find it helpful to keep a ready-packed bag full of items your loved one cares about, just in case you have an emergency hospital visit.

Remind Your Loved One Where He/She Is

Remember, if you see your loved one looking scared or confused you can remind them what’s happening. Say, “Dad, you’re in the hospital getting your broken hip repaired.”  You may need to remind them frequently. Episodes of confusion are more common at night.  This is often called “sundowning.” A night light can be helpful in case your loved one wakes in the night and can’t see their surroundings.

Identify Special Needs & Help the Hospital Staff

If your loved one is hard of hearing in the right ear, put a sign on the bed that says, “I hear better in my left ear.  Please speak there!” Other signs might say, “I like to be called Bob” or “My left hip feels most comfortable when it’s on a pillow.” Offer tips to the hospital staff that you have learned from your own experience, such as how your father’s blood sugar responds to a certain kind of insulin.

Keep It Clean

Make sure everyone washes before touching your loved one. Have school-aged relatives make a sign that says, “We love Grandma.  Please wash your hands before you examine her.”  Then, if a visiting relative or a harried doctor or nurse forgets, just point to the sign.

Invite Sick People to Call Instead of Visit

Even a minor cold can turn into a major problem for a hospitalized patient.  Put a sign on the door, “Herman’s immune system is weakened.  If you’re sick, please feel free to leave a note. And thanks for keeping your visit short.”  Leave a notepad on the hospital room door.

Ask Medical Staff about Rehabilitation

Bedrest de-conditions even the most robust athlete.  Your loved one may not have that much conditioning to spare.  Lying flat increases the risk of pneumonia and may increase bed sores. Doctors and nurses manage the medical details to make sure your loved one has an accurate diagnosis and the most effective treatment.  Make sure the details surrounding your loved one’s recovery and rehabilitation are covered as well.  Please ask the nurse, “What is the plan to keep Mom’s muscles strong?”

Help Enhance Safety

Hospital staff are asked to carry a tremendous workload. Being human, they are bound to make mistakes. While doctors and nurses are working to create a safer health care system, you can contribute to your loved one’s safety by asking simple questions.  When a nurse brings your loved one a medication, say, “I would like to ask you what medication you’re giving Mom and why she’s getting it.” Ask a hospital transporter, “Where are you taking Dad?  May I go along?”

Be Patient with Healthcare Staff

Many medical staff throughout the hospital will ask the same questions of any patient, such as, “What are your allergies?” or “What medications are you taking?”  The hospital may even participate in the “sign the site” program, in which the surgeon places his/her initials over the surgical site to avoid left-right confusion.  This is all done to assure your loved one’s safety. Familiarize yourself with the procedures the hospital uses, and be aware of the questions being asked of your loved one. Help your loved one answer the questions.

Bring Copies of Paperwork

Bring copies of your loved one’s advanced directives, otherwise known as a “living will”, and the durable medical power of attorney.  In the event that your loved one is no longer able to make choices for him/herself, these documents state who will make the choices and offer a roadmap for decision-making. If you are the decision maker, the responsibility can feel overwhelming.  Your job is to honor your loved one by doing what is best for them, not what you feel is best.  If your loved one does not have a living will and is not able to make decisions, your job is to figure out what choice your loved one would make if capable. You may need to work with an attorney for your loved one in this case as you will need to have Power of Attorney over your loved one in order to make healthcare decisions on their behalf. Talk with your loved one today about the choices they would want made, so you are not caught unaware should this unfortunate circumstance arise suddenly.


About the Author:  Vicki Rackner

Vicki Rackner, M.D. is a board-certified surgeon and clinical instructor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.  Dr. Rackner left the operating room to be on the cutting edge of health care consumerism.  She's an author, speaker, and consultant.  Dr. Rackner's books include Chicken Soup for the Soul: Healthy Living Series: Heart Disease, The Biggest Skeleton in Your Doctor's Closet, and The Personal Health Journal: A Resource for Owning and Directing Your Health Story.  For more free tips, and a free report "Caring for the Caregiver" email Dr. Vicki Rackner at DrVicki@DrVicki.org, and be sure to check out her regular column at http://www.strengthforcaring.com

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