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Older Adults Surviving the ICU

older-adult-surviving-icusOur vice president for geriatric care management services, Steve Steiber, Ph.D., brought some startling information to my attention recently, and it concerns the risk we don’t often think of when we hear that an older loved one has been hospitalized.  He has nearly two decades experience in pharmaceutical medical device consulting prior to joining CCM.

For older adults, who are admitted to a hospital intensive care unit, it would seem that discharge from the hospital means they are out of the proverbial woods.  Not so, according to researchers affiliated with Vanderbilt University Hospital. They studied older adults who were discharged from the hospital after a stay in the ICU.  What were they were looking for? Complications from what they termed Potentially Inappropriate Medications (PIMs) and Actually Inappropriate Medications (AIMs).  Very simply, AIMS are medications whose side effects or likelihood of adverse events outweighed the potential benefits the medications were supposed to confer.  PIMs were seen as medications where the jury might still be out.  In short, they were looking to see what negative outcomes were associated with the patients’ prescriptions separate from their medical conditions.

This is a big deal if you are a caregiver to an older adult, very simply because drug-related admissions for 65 to 84 year olds have increased by 96 percent between 1997 and 2008.  And approximately half of all drug-related hospital admissions are among adults 80 years of age and older.  As we all know the over 65 age group is growing more rapidly than the population at large, so we can only expect this risk to grow.

Getting back to PIMs and AIMs, about half of all older adults are discharged with at least one PIM, and four out of five of these older adults are discharged with an AIM.  This is all the more exaggerated among patients who have been in the ICU, since 85% are discharged with at least one PIM and more than half are prescribed at least one AIM.

The lessons the researchers learned is that some of the AIMs that patients were discharged with were appropriate and useful in the ICU, but should have been discontinued upon discharge.  As a caregiver, be aware of the new medications that your older loved one was started on in the hospital ICU, and ask your attending physician if they should be continued at home.  The most common AIMs that patients carried home with them on discharge were:

  • anticholinergics (37%) – These drugs are used to treat asthma, COPD, incontinence, stomach cramps, and muscular spasms.  They can be used to help patients sleep when they are hospitalized.
  • nonbenzodiazapene hypnotics (14%) – These are almost always used as a strong sleep aid, but if a patient takes them home beware of their effect with alcohol.
  • opioids (12%) – These are indicated for significant pain, most often associated with trauma or in post-surgical recovery.  There is significant addictive potential, and these should not be maintained long term.

So, if your older loved one carries home any of these prescriptions, ask the provider why they are appropriate for use at home. If they are appropriate, also then inquire for how long the patient will be taking them safely or for what kind of side effects you should be looking.

Please let Steve know if you have any questions about drugs or their side effects or the unique medical challenges faced by older adults or others with special needs.  Please email to:


Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends who deliver geriatric care management services to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  Please email your questions to


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