Lengthy and difficult, the recovery process from a hip fracture can be both physically and psychologically trying for older adults: not only does the body need to heal, but emotional challenges must be attended to with equal care. In fact, research has shown that depression is one of the more frequent symptoms that can crop up during the recovery phase—“40% of older people who suffer a hip fracture go on to develop depressive symptoms.” There are many reasons why mental-emotional obstacles may occur after a hip fracture, as this type of injury drastically decreases an older adult’s level of independence, either temporarily or long-term.
Treating the emotional side of your loved one’s hip fracture recovery is also critical because it impacts their body’s ability to heal. In fact, studies have shown that depression negatively impacts an older adult’s ability to recover physically after a hip fracture. It lowers the immune system, and increases their likelihood of “developing infections like pneumonia as well as failing to regain their pre-fracture physical ability.” So in addition to proper physical therapy, medication, and rest, ensuring that your loved one’s emotional well-being is taken care of is equally important to their recovery success.
The Prevalence of Hip Fractures in Older Adults
Suffering a hip fracture can be devastating to your aging loved one. One of the most common forms of injuries in older adults, around 300,000 Americans over 65 suffer hip fractures each year—and approximately 75% of those happen to women.
The vast majority of hip fractures are caused by falling, which often occurs in the bathroom, outside on the street, or at a shopping mall. Though sometimes all it can take is simply twisting the leg while standing, especially if your loved one has weak bones or osteoporosis. It can take very little to cause a hip fracture, but much to heal one.
Common Emotional Concerns During Hip Fracture Recovery
Because so many aspects of daily life get turned upside down after a hip fracture, there are multiple accompanying anxieties that your loved one will be dealing with. Understanding their worries and fears can help caregivers communicate compassionately with their loved ones and offer support from the start.
- Caring for a spouse: If the healthier partner suffers a hip fracture, they’ll likely be unable to care for their spouse for a period of time when they recover. Finding someone to take care of their partner can be very stressful and prevent them from focusing on their own recovery. Caregivers can reduce their loved one’s stress by offering to care for the spouse themselves, asking other family members to help out, or hiring a professional.
- Relocating from home: Losing the ability to walk can make it tough for your loved one to continue aging in place. They might need to relocate to a nursing home during recovery, which can feel scary and cause anxiety. You can help lessen their stress by inviting them to live with you during their recovery, scouting quality nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and reassuring them that you’ll visit daily.
- Becoming isolated: The combination of reduced mobility and daily physical pain can make it difficult for your loved one to get outside and socialize. This can lead to isolation and fuel depression. Caregivers can offer support by spending time with their loved one as much as possible, and being a nonjudgmental listener.
- Losing motivation: Recovering from a serious injury like a hip fracture is both physically painful and energetically draining. Older adults might feel defeated, and lose motivation to keep doing physical therapy. You can help by accompanying your loved one to physio sessions, doing the therapy together at home, and charting their progress on paper so they can see improvements.
- Fearing death: As with any serious illness or injury in old age, suffering a hip fracture can impact your loved one’s risk of dying—there can be complications from surgery and increased susceptibility to infections. Sadly, around 25% of older hip fracture patients pass away within a year of the injury. Caregivers can speak with their loved one about this challenging topic, and offer reassurance about the recovery process.
- Losing the ability to walk: A hip fracture can cause an older adult to lose the ability to walk, either temporarily or permanently. Understandably, this reality can be stressful and anxiety-provoking. Around 50% of older adults who experience hip fractures are unable to get back to their walking ability after the injury. You can help by handling your loved one’s transportation needs, whether it’s driving them yourself, hiring someone to bring groceries, or setting them up with a private driving service.
Supporting Your Loved One’s Emotional Recovery
To treat symptoms of depression and general emotional stress that their loved one might be experiencing during hip fracture recovery, caregivers can take several steps. Addressing mental-emotional issues head-on, bringing in outside support, and coming up with practical solutions to stresses can all help create an emotionally safe environment for your loved one.
These approaches can also help caregivers spot early stages of serious depression, get medication if needed, and ensure their love one feels cared for and supported throughout their recovery.
- Talk with your loved one: Encourage your loved one to share their feelings with you about what’s happening. Let it be safe for them to cry, express fears and anxieties, and listen to what they’re saying with an open heart.
- Learning the signs of depression: Be on the lookout for potential signs of depression in your aging loved one. These might include feelings of hopelessness, negative thinking, and isolation (pushing people away, neglecting social calls, refusing to talk).
- Seek professional counseling: Having a professional therapist or counselor talk with your loved one can be an essential aspect of their recovery. Even if they’re not suffering from depression, counselling can still be very beneficial—it can offer your loved one guidance through this challenging time and improve their chances of recovery. A professional will also be able to assess whether medication is needed.
- Ask for outside help: Finding practical solutions to your loved one’s stressors can offer them ongoing emotional relief. Identify what they’re most anxious about—whether it’s moving to a nursing home, not being able to walk their dog, or having no one to care for their spouse—then create solutions for each. These might include bringing them around to nursing homes, finding a dog-walker, or hiring a caregiver for their partner.
Offer ongoing support: Spending quality time with your aging loved one during their recovery can help them beat isolation and increase their motivation for getting better. You can also support them in creating a list of goals (for example, to do daily physical therapy) and be their cheerleader in reaching them.
Using emotionally-mindful strategies during hip fracture recovery can help your aging loved one to heal both physically and emotionally. Caregivers can play an active role by offering empathy, compassion, and finding real-world solutions for their loved one’s anxieties. Creating a nurturing environment at home and having compassionate conversations with your loved one on a regular basis can encourage feelings of safety and security. This in itself can greatly improve your loved one’s chances of an effective recovery.
It’s critical to focus just as much attention on one’s emotional health as their physical recovery, because it can have a such a big impact on the body’s ability to heal. The psychological toll of a hip fracture isn’t something that your loved one should have to bear on their own. Fortunately, there are many ways for caregivers to ensure this isn’t the case. Offering unconditional support and taking care of your aging loved one’s emotional well-being during hip fracture recovery is essential to healing their whole being—in body, mind, and spirit.
If you’re unsure how to best support your aging loved one through an injury or illness, Institute on Aging offers a range of programs, services, and online resources. Contact us today to learn more.