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Published October 06, 2012, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Father thrown into dementia following surgery

DEAR CAROL: I found your name while doing an Internet search following my father’s surgery. He is 79-years-old and because of a painful back problem, he agreed to have surgery. That was a month ago. Since the surgery he’s been in full-blown dementia.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: I found your name while doing an Internet search following my father’s surgery. He is 79-years-old and because of a painful back problem, he agreed to have surgery. That was a month ago. Since the surgery he’s been in full-blown dementia. He showed no sign of dementia before the surgery. No one in my acquaintance has heard of such a thing. When I ask people who work with seniors, they just act as though it’s no big deal. It’s extremely painful for the family to see that he’s no longer aware of reality. Thank you for educating people about this. – Mary Beth

DEAR MARY BETH: It’s with deep sorrow and understanding that I read about your family tragedy. I’m glad I could help at least validate your pain. I write about my dad’s post-surgery dementia because I want people who go through this type of experience to know that they aren’t alone.

As you likely know from reading my articles, my dad went into surgery to correct some ill effects resulting from a World War II brain injury. Scar tissue had built up in his brain and fluid was damming up behind the scarring. This fluid would eventually cause brain damage that could lead to dementia.

Dad’s physician said that a surgeon would place a shunt in Dad’s brain which would harmlessly pump the fluid into his abdominal cavity, thus preventing brain damage. This type of surgery is fairly common and considered safe. However, much as with your father, Dad came out of surgery with what you vividly describe as “full-blown” dementia.

Scientists are now collecting data on dementia following surgery. What are they finding? That it’s not as rare as once thought. Some of this research has concluded that anesthetics may be to blame. The experience of hospitalization, itself, is also being examined as one stressor that may push an elder over the line into severe dementia.

I can identify and have intense sympathy for you with regard to how the professionals have responded, as well. We had a similar experience. The physicians wouldn’t admit that Dad was any different after surgery than before, even though they prescribed a powerful antipsychotic for him following surgery, which he didn’t previously need.

We knew Dad’s tragic situation was likely no one’s fault. We just wanted some validation from the medical team. If someone had said “I’m so sorry that it turned out his way, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, things go wrong,” it would have helped a great deal. I’m happy to say that some states now have implemented laws that allow doctors to acknowledge and show compassion about a “poor outcome,” without the risk of a lawsuit. Maybe those laws will free up truly compassionate doctors to be honest without fear.

Surgery is sometimes necessary, even for elders. However, we need to encourage people to talk over every detail with the physician before making the decision to operate under general anesthesia. Again, Mary Beth, my heart goes out to you and your family.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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