Hospitals fight delirium with volunteer help

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2013 - 10:55 PM

“High touch, low tech” approach helps hospitals head off delirium in elderly patients, who go home healthier and earlier.


Volunteer Mandi Shimek chatted with Duane Jones, who was recovering from a hip replacement.


Paula Duncan saw how quickly it could happen with her father-in-law. When he was hospitalized with pneumonia at age 80, his personality changed. Almost overnight, he became aggressive and combative.

As a hospital nurse, Duncan knew that older patients sometimes become delirious. She just didn’t know how common it was — or that anything could be done about it.

Now, she heads a program at Park Nicollet’s Methodist Hospital that’s trying to fend off these sudden, frightening bouts of confusion.

Surprisingly, it relies on a small army of volunteers and a little friendly conversation. What they discovered, Duncan says, is that a steady dose of “high touch, low tech” activities — doing crossword puzzles, reminiscing, talking about their grandchildren — can engage the minds of patients when they’re most vulnerable.

And research shows it’s helping elderly patients leave the hospital sooner and in better shape than their peers.

In the hospital world, it’s no secret that older patients are prone to abrupt changes of behavior, Duncan says. They may seem perfectly normal at home, but once they’re in the hospital, they may forget where they are, try to pull out their tubes, hallucinate.

For years, doctors and nurses tended to shrug off the problem, said Dr. Nima Desai, a staff doctor at Methodist. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is what happens in the hospital.’ ” Unlike dementia, it often clears up in a matter of days.

But in 1999, a groundbreaking study at Yale University found that delirium was far more widespread — and hazardous — than people realized, especially in intensive care units, where up to 85 percent of patients may be affected.

The causes can range from the profound to the mundane: a drug side effect, a change in routine, sleepless nights, a sense of isolation and depression. And it can complicate their treatment and recovery, as well as terrifying their families.

The study’s author, Dr. Sharon Inouye, concluded that delirium was, in fact, often preventable; she came up with the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP). Methodist, in St. Louis Park, is the first hospital in Minnesota to adopt it, said Duncan.

‘Out of body’ experience

Mandi Shimek, 34, is one of the purple-shirted volunteers who can be seen pushing HELP carts through the halls of Methodist. The carts are loaded with tools of the trade: puzzle books, stress balls, lens cleaners and special headsets to amplify voices. “If you can’t hear, or you can’t see,” explains Duncan, “confusion can become really profound.”

Shimek, who is finishing a master’s degree in psychology, may understand the problem better than most. When she was 31, she was hospitalized after an accident. She started yelling, screaming and “trying to rip out my IV,” she said. “It was like an out-of-body experience.” In her case, the delirium was the side effect of an anti-anxiety drug.

Now, as a volunteer, she spends four-hour shifts visiting patients who are mostly 70 and older, the main group considered at risk for delirium.

On Thursday morning, Shimek checked in on Duane Jones, 79, who had gotten a hip replacement two days earlier. This wasn’t their first visit, but she began by asking if he knew what day it was (he did), where he was (“Room 717”) and who’s the president (right again).

She sat down next to his bed as he lay propped up against some pillows, and they chatted about his favorite place to travel (San Diego). After a few minutes, she asked if there was anything she could do for him.

“I want a pass out of here and I want a beer,” he teased her.

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