Doctors cared for her wounds and treated her pneumonia. But Prochazka, 75, didn't sleep or eat well at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. She became confused and agitated and ultimately contracted a serious stomach infection. After more than three weeks in the hospital and three more in a rehabilitation facility, she emerged far weaker than before, shaky and unable to think clearly.
She had to stop working and wasn't able to drive for months. And now, she's considering a move to Maine to be closer to relatives for support.
"It's a big, big change," said her stepdaughter, Kitty Gilbert, soon after Prochazka returned home. "I am hopeful that she will regain a lot of what she lost, but I am not sure."
Many elderly patients like Prochazka deteriorate mentally or physically in the hospital, even if they recover from the original illness or injury that brought them there. About one-third of patients over 70 years old and more than half of patients over 85 leave the hospital more disabled than when they arrived, research
As a result, many seniors are unable to care for themselves after discharge and need assistance with daily activities such as bathing, dressing or even walking.
"The older you are, the worse the hospital is for you," said Ken Covinsky, a physician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco division of geriatrics. "A lot of the stuff we do in medicine does more harm than good. And sometimes with the care of older people, less is more."
Hospital staff often fail to feed older patients properly, get them out of bed enough or control their pain adequately. Providers frequently restrict their movements by tethering them to beds with oxygen tanks and IV poles. Doctors subject them to unnecessary procedures and prescribe redundant or potentially harmful medications. And caregivers deprive them of sleep by placing them in noisy wards or checking vital signs at all hours of the night.
Interrupted sleep, unappetizing food and days in bed may be merely annoying for younger patients, but they can cause lasting damage to older ones. Elderly patients are far different than their younger counterparts — so much so that some hospitals are treating some of them in separate medical units.
San Francisco General is one of them. Its Acute Care for Elders (ACE) ward, which opened in 2007, has special accommodations and a team of providers to address the unique needs of older patients. They focus less on the original diagnosis and more on how to get patients back home, living as independently as possible.
Early on, the staff tests patients' memories and assesses how well they can walk and care for themselves at home. Then they give patients practice doing things for themselves as much as possible throughout their stay. They remove catheters and IVs, and encourage patients to get out of bed and eat in a communal dining area.
"Bed rest is really, really bad," said the medical director of the ACE unit, Edgar Pierluissi. "It sets off an explosive chain of events that are very detrimental to people's health."
Such units are still rare — there are only about 200 around the country. And even where they exist, not every senior is admitted, in part because space is limited.
Prochazka said the constant checks by hospital staff made it hard for her to get a good night's sleep during her stay in the hospital. The night before, she said, she pulled the covers over her head in order to be left alone. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
Prochazka went to the emergency room first, then intensive care. She was transferred to ACE about a week later. The staff weaned her off some of her medications and got her up and walking. They also limited the disorienting nighttime checks. Prochazka said she got "the first good night of sleep I have had."
But for her, the move might have been too late.
"She will not leave here where she started," Pierluissi said several days before Prochazka was discharged. "She is going to be weaker and unable to do the things you really need to do to live independently."
Not A Priority
How hospitals handle the old — and very old — is a pressing problem. Elderly patients are a growing clientele for hospitals, a trend that will only accelerate as baby boomers age. Patients over 65 already make up more than one-third of all discharges, according to the federal government, and nearly 13 million seniors are hospitalized each year. And they stay longer than younger patients.
Many seniors are already suspended precariously between independent living and reliance on others. They are weakened by multiple chronic diseases and medications.
One bad hospitalization can tip them over the edge, and they may never recover, said Melissa Mattison, chief of the hospital medicine unit at Massachuset