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Hospital Sitters: The Little-Known & Invaluable Resource for Hospitalized Alzheimer's & Dementia Patients

By Dr. Kathy Johnson, CEO of Home Care Assistance, Inc.
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Hospital sitters are increasingly being recognized as a legitimate"”and even necessary"”element of a well-supported hospital stay, especially to fill in the gaps for hospitalized Alzheimer's or dementia patients. As patient advocates and caregivers, hospital sitters can make a significant impact on patients' experience by providing a watchful eye, curbing dangerous behaviors, and alerting nursing or medical staff at the first sign of a problem.

One of the most critical places to have a caregiver with you is during a hospital stay. Many people find this surprising. You would think that having nurses, doctors and medical staff so close by would make hospitals one of the safest places to be. Sadly, this isn't the case. With only one or two busy nurses working 12-hour shifts and handling many patients with critical needs, it can be a long wait between the time you push a call button and the time anyone comes to check on you. Plus, it only takes an instant for a dangerous fall to occur. Ten percent of fatal falls for older adults occur in hospitals. Alzheimer's disease, or other types of dementia, along with disorientation and medication are the leading factors that contribute to falls in hospitals.

What Is a Hospital Sitter?

The best safety precaution is a specialized caregiver known as a hospital sitter. Hospital sitters provide round-the-clock companionship and make observations of any problems the patient may be experiencing. Sitters monitor and keep the patient company, converse, read and/or even run errands for the patient. However, sitters cannot aid or participate in any patient care or physical contact and they must stay out of the way of hospital staff. Hospital sitters are under the direction of the patient registered nurse. In the event of an urgent patient need, a fall or a medical emergency, the sitter will be there to immediately summon the nurse in charge. Hospital administrators are so concerned by common safety risks that they even hire hospital sitters themselves to watch over their high-profile patients, especially those who have made major donations to the hospital. A physician may prescribe a continuous, one-to-one sitter for patients who have an impaired ability to understand or follow directions or who are unable to realize the potential that they could harm themselves as a consequence of their actions, such as those with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Other Ways Hospital Sitters Can Help

While safety is critically important, hospital sitters do more than help prevent falls and alert nurses to medical emergencies. "Raw companionship is great medicine," says Dr. Mynra Lee, a physician at Mt. Zion Medical Center. "Despite so many busy people running around, hospitals are lonely places." Knowing another person is in the room watching over them—especially if it's someone familiar like a regular caregiver—makes patients feel more secure and makes a hospital room more human.

One of the most helpful tasks that hospital sitters can do is to keep a journal. Sitters can record every doctor visit and outcome that occurs during their shift, as well as describe any procedures that took place and the expected and actual outcomes and observations of the patient. Sitters can also maintain emergency contact information for the patient's family, and essential legal documents—including a copies of the patient's advanced directives, in case a relative is unable to be contacted for a critical decision. Hospital sitters provide peace of mind for the patient's family. Their vigilance ensures safety as well as companionship that reduces the patient's boredom and depression. Hospital sitters also enable the patient's family to go home and rest, knowing their loved one will never be alone.

Editor's Note: For further reading, download the Hospital Suitcase for a checklist of what to bring to the hospital and the Medication Tracker, where you can record all of your (or your loved one's) medications in one place.

Kathy N. Johnson, PhD, CMC is a Certified Care Manager and the Co-Founder of Home Care Assistance, Inc. She holds a Doctorate in Psychology from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Kathy is committed to serving the needs of seniors nationwide.