Oliver: Dementia turns hospital stay into angst-filled adventure

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Dementia and hospitals don’t mix.

That might seem obvious, but the truth of it was made even clearer during a recent, unexpected trip to a nearby hospital with my mother.

What began as a routine Saturday morning quickly turned into a harrowing ordeal when I could not rouse Mom from what appeared to be a nap in her bedroom chair. Nothing could bring her to consciousness – not my efforts nor those of my husband, who was an EMT with the local fire department for many years. Not even the kind and professional paramedics could wake her.

I thought she had suffered a stroke. After all, she had had a couple of mini-strokes in the years leading up to her coming to live with me.

Thankfully, it wasn’t that. The fun, however, began as the fine medical team tried to figure out just what had happened.

Mom eventually woke up in the emergency room. She was happy to see me, and I did my best to explain to her what was going on. At first, she was fine, and she even tried to crack a few jokes.

However, it soon became apparent, to her dismay, that she was expected to stay in bed. Worse yet, she wasn’t supposed to mess with the IV line attached to her arm. Then there was the squeezing of the blood-pressure cuff every five minutes or so, which she swore was hurting her.

Meanwhile, I was doing my best to fill out forms and soothe Mom’s nerves while trying to get a handle on my own. No easy feat, made worse by the awareness that I was stuck all day in my pajamas. The nursing staff, bless them, and I had a good laugh about that.

Clearly, I wasn’t going anywhere. My mother had no idea why she was in the hospital, so she couldn’t help the parade of doctors who expected to hear her story over and over again. That was my job, as well as to interpret and reinforce any commands Mom received from the doctors and nursing staff. And I was there to summon help, since Mom had no idea what that call button was meant to do.

I did my best to warn anyone who would listen that as the day wore on, Mom would become increasingly harder to handle. She would begin to see things, misinterpret well-meaning efforts to help her and want to leave her bed to go home.

I still wince at the thought of the poor physical therapist who got a withering death stare after she innocently offered to take Mom for a walk. Perhaps it had something to do with the hospital gown being at least three sizes too big for Mom, who weighs all of 97 pounds and stands 4-foot-9. I’m told the visit by a physical therapist early the next morning went even worse.

Needless to say, by Sunday, after only one night’s stay, she was ready to go home. I was, too. No doubt the entire nursing staff shared the sentiment.

The constant noise, the in-and-out of a stream of people, the alarm on her bed when she would try to get up, the inability to just go where she wanted to go – all of these things made her tired, grumpy and belligerent. Even I, the one person to whom she normally will respond, couldn’t make it better. Having a roommate a mere curtain away probably didn’t help, either.

In the end, we’re no closer to knowing what happened. Here’s hoping it – ruled a fainting spell – doesn’t happen again anytime soon.

However, I did get an answer to a question that has been turning over and over in my mind: Would Mom be better off in a nursing home?

After that hospital stay, I’d say the answer, at least for now, is a firm “no.”

Dementia and hospitals – or anything like them – don’t mix.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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