Nurses’ emotional tone toward older inpatients: Do cognitive impairment and acute hospital setting matter?

Abstract

The emotional tone of nurses’ voice toward residents has been characterized as overly controlling and less person-centered. However, it is unclear whether this critical imbalance also applies to acutely ill older patients, who represent a major subgroup in acute hospitals. We therefore examined nurses’ emotional tone in this setting, contrasting care interactions with severely cognitively impaired (CI) versus cognitively unimpaired older patients. Furthermore, we included a general versus a geriatric acute hospital to examine the role of different hospital environments. A mixed-methods design combining audio-recordings with standardized interviews was used. Audio-recorded clips of care interactions between 34 registered nurses (Mage = 38.9 years, SD = 12.3 years) and 92 patients (Mage = 83.4 years, SD = 6.1 years; 50% with CI) were evaluated by 12 naïve raters (Mage = 32.8 years, SD = 9.3 years). Based on their impressions of the vocal qualities, raters judged nurses’ emotional tone by an established procedure which allows to differentiate between a person-centered and a controlling tone (Cronbach’s α = .98 for both subscales). Overall, findings revealed that nurses used rather person-centered tones. However, nurses’ tone was rated as more controlling for CI patients and in the geriatric hospital. When controlling for patients’ functional status, both effects lost significance. To our knowledge, this is the first study that examined nurses’ emotional tone in the acute hospital setting. Findings suggest that overall functional status of older patients may play a more important role for emotional tone in care interactions than CI and setting differences.

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Acknowledgements

We thank all participating patients and nursing staff as well as the directors of both acute hospitals involved in this study for their cooperation. Furthermore, we thank Christina Streib, Sandra Schmitt, and Agnieszka Marciniak for their help in collecting and processing the data. A special thanks goes to Thomas Schmidt, Thomas Spranz-Fogasy, Evi Schedl, and Swantje Westpfahl, Institute of German Language in Mannheim, Germany, for their cooperative role and valuable recommendations in collecting, preparing, and analyzing the linguistic data. We also thank Hannah Stocker and Jonathan Griffiths for proofreading the manuscript with respect to linguistic issues.

Funding

This study was funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation Stuttgart within the Graduate Program People with Dementia in Acute Care Hospitals (GPPDACH), located at the Network Aging Research (NAR), University of Heidelberg, Germany.

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Correspondence to Eva-Luisa Schnabel.

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Schnabel, EL., Wahl, HW., Schönstein, A. et al. Nurses’ emotional tone toward older inpatients: Do cognitive impairment and acute hospital setting matter?. Eur J Ageing 17, 371–381 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10433-019-00531-z

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Keywords

  • Inpatient
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Functional status
  • Elderspeak
  • Person-centered communication