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A traveling cart filled with stuffed animals, yarn and coloring books can often be seen in the halls of Indiana University Health West Hospital.
It’s not for kids though—it's for patients 65 years and older.
That’s because this cart is the philanthropy-powered “delirium cart.” This mobile supply center is stocked with distractive devices that help senior patients suffering from dementia and delirium—a temporary but severe form of mental impairment—feel less confused while they are in a medical environment.
“Delirium is a common problem for all older adults in the hospital,” said IU Health Clinical Nurse Specialist Erica Newkirk, MSN, RN, AGCNS-BC, the driving force behind the cart. “It doesn’t just happen to people with Alzheimer’s or a dementia diagnosis, but those individuals are at a higher risk for it.”
In fact, up to a third of patients 70 and older experience in-hospital delirium, and the rate is much higher for those in intensive care or undergoing surgery, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Newkirk said that anything that interferes with neurotransmitters—the brain chemicals that communicate between nerve cells—can trigger delirium. This means inflammation, infection and medications can induce the disoriented state, as can a host of potentially bewildering changes common to hospital stays, such as unfamiliar surroundings, interruptions of usual routines including sleep patterns, and separation from family and pets.
But the biggest mystery surrounding delirium is that caregivers don’t know if or when it will affect their patients, nor how severe it will be.
“Because there are still so many unknowns, we encourage patients to pick a ‘distraction’ from the delirium cart very early on in their hospital stay,” said Newkirk. “The hope is that by keeping their mind focused, they will not succumb to delirium-related symptoms.”
That tactic is already seeing positive results. Since the implementation of the delirium cart, IU Health West Hospital has seen a substantial decrease in the severity of delirium among older patients. But a major challenge for Newkirk and her team is to keep up with the demands of the cart.
Since it was created in 2013, the cart has relied on in-kind donations from supporters. It’s even been restocked by IU Health Team members, including Newkirk herself. Due to COVID-19 and sanitary restrictions, items from the cart can only be used once and are then given to the patient to take home. This means donations are always needed.
“Without the support of the community and our team members, the delirium cart wouldn’t exist,” said Newkirk.
She and her team accept a wide variety of new items—everything from nail polish and puzzles to coloring books and teddy bears, or monetary gifts the staff can use to buy appropriate items. Because no matter what patients choose, Newkirk said the cart’s contents always help brighten their day.
“People need this care, and this care is perfect from a nursing stance,” Newkirk explained. “We can do so much for patients, even without necessarily using medicine, but just from caring.”
If you’d like to help restock the delirium cart, contact IU Health Foundation Senior Development Officer Leigh Ann Erickson at 317.373.0142.