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Going to hospital can be a stressful experience for someone living with dementia. Their routine will change, they’ll be in a different, often noisy, environment and they’ll be cared for by people who aren’t familiar. All of this can be confusing or frightening.

If you’re caring for someone who needs to go to hospital, there are some things you can do to make their stay more comfortable.

Some of the strategies suggested here might feel over-the-top or even dishonest. The goal is always to provide peace of mind to your loved one, particularly if they can’t fully understand the facts about their hospital visit. In all instances, think about the person’s personality and what’s worked best with them in the past. Use this to guide your decision-making.

Preparing for a planned hospital stay

Exactly how much you tell your friend or family member about a planned hospital stay will depend on factors like:

  • the extent of their memory loss
  • how anxious they’re likely to be about going to hospital
  • whether they’ll be comfortable going to hospital once they know about it.

You might decide to tell them in advance and to involve them in all the planning and preparation. Or you might feel it would be less upsetting to them to tell them just before you go to hospital. It’s okay to make the choice you think is best.

Whenever you have the conversation, set the tone by talking about the hospital visit calmly and reassuringly.

Preparing for an unplanned stay

Hospital visits can be needed at short notice. Keep a bag already packed in case of an emergency visit, to minimise stress and rushing for both of you. Check the bag regularly to make sure everything’s up to date.

Packing for hospital

There are a few approaches you can take when packing for hospital, depending on what will work best for your friend or family member. These include:

  • involving your loved one in choosing items and packing them
  • suggesting what to take and ask them to confirm those choices
  • packing what they’ll need without involving them.

When you’re packing, consider including:

  • familiar clothes and toiletries
  • all of their medications
  • some familiar objects, like family photos, a pillow and slippers
  • a clock or calendar from home to help with orientation and reduce confusion
  • a “memory book” that shares information about the person’s history, friends, family and interests.

It’s also worth creating a document with need-to-know details about your friend or family member, so hospital staff can easily access this information. It could include:

  • their preferred name
  • their regular routine
  • their likes and dislikes
  • a list of all their medications and dosages
  • any preferences for taking medication
  • possible causes of agitation, and how to manage it
  • advice on settling them at night
  • hygiene habits and preferences.

Arriving at hospital

There are some steps you can take to make the hospital admission process easier, and less stressful for both you and your loved one:

  • Let the hospital staff know in advance that your friend or family member is living with dementia.
  • Try to arrange admission during a quiet time at the hospital.
  • Plan where you’ll park, and work out how to get to Admissions from your parking spot.
  • If you can, have someone come with you to help.

Once your friend or family member is admitted, try to go with them to their ward:

  • Introduce yourself to ward staff and explain that your loved one has dementia. If you’ve created a document with details about the person, give the ward staff a copy.
  • Let the ward staff know you can answer any questions or provide necessary information about the person and their needs.
  • Ask if doctors can make their visits when you’re at the hospital. Or, if that’s not possible, ask the doctors to provide notes about their visits.
  • Introduce your loved one to their nurse. Explain that the nurse is a safe person that they can talk to or ask for help.

Your friend or family member might be stressed or frightened when you leave them. These are some things you can try to make it easier for them:

  • Let the nursing staff know when you plan to leave, so they can take over.
  • Make an excuse to leave the person’s bedside temporarily.
  • Try leaving as a meal arrives, as this might distract them.

During the hospital stay

When you visit your loved one, these are some things to you can do to support and reassure them:

  • If they’re angry or annoyed about being in hospital, empathise with them, then focus on something else. Be positive, and use quiet, soothing language.
  • Watch out for signs of pain, as this can sometimes be missed in people living with dementia.
  • Keep up your usual physical contact, like hugging or holding hands, particularly if they feel unsure or afraid. Try a hand massage, if you think they’ll enjoy it. If you’re worried about hurting them or dislodging medical equipment, check with nursing staff.
  • Take in an activity to do together. For example, you could take in a magazine or newspaper, photos, music or a quiz.
  • Keep a sheet of paper by the bed where visitors can write their names. This shows your loved one that they’ve had visitors.

You might find your friend or family member asks to come home before they’re ready to be discharged. If this happens:

  • avoid blaming the hospital staff, as the person needs to have confidence in their care and treatment
  • emphasise that they’re being very well looked after.

Leaving hospital

When your loved one’s hospital stay is over, you might want to wait to tell them until it’s time for them to be discharged. This means they can leave straight away.

At discharge time, ask the hospital staff to put any relevant information about their treatment and post-hospital care in writing. Keep in touch with the person’s regular doctor so they can see someone familiar and be reassured about any part of the treatment.

Your friend or family member might be tired or overwhelmed after leaving hospital. These tips can help:

  • Avoid stopping on the way home.
  • Give your friend or family member time to re-establish themselves at home. If you can, try to avoid interrupting them.
  • Spend some time doing quiet activities together, like listening to music or looking at photos.

It’s okay to take care of your own health and happiness. If you're struggling as someone who cares for a person with dementia, contact the free, confidential National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500, any time of the day or night, for information, advice and support.

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Last updated
5 February 2024