Assessment and Management of Pressure Ulcers in the Elderly
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Pressure ulcers (pressure sores) continue to be a common health problem, particularly among the physically limited or bedridden elderly. The problem exists within the entire health framework, including hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and private homes.
For many elderly patients, pressure ulcers may become chronic for no apparent reason and remain so for prolonged periods, even for the remainder of the patient’s lifetime. A large number of grade 3 and 4 pressure ulcers become chronic wounds, and the afflicted patient may even die from an ulcer complication (sepsis or osteomyelitis).
The presence of a pressure ulcer constitutes a geriatric syndrome consisting of multifactorial pathological conditions. The accumulated effects of impairment due to immobility, nutritional deficiency and chronic diseases involving multiple systems predispose the aging skin of the elderly person to increasing vulnerability.
The assessment and management of a pressure ulcer requires a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach in order to understand the patient with the ulcer. Factors to consider include the patient’s underlying pathologies (such as obstructive lung disease or peripheral vascular disease), severity of his or her primary illness (such as an infection or hip fracture), co-morbidities (such as dementia or diabetes mellitus), functional state (activities of daily living), nutritional status (swallowing difficulties), and degree of social and emotional support; focusing on just the wound itself is not enough. An understanding of the physiological and pathological processes of aging skin throws light on the aetiology and pathogenesis of the development of pressure ulcers in the elderly.
Each health discipline (nursing staff, aides, physician, dietitian, occupational and physical therapists, and social worker) has its own role to play in the assessment and management of the patient with a pressure ulcer. The goals of treating a pressure ulcer include avoiding any preventable contributing circumstances, such as immobilization after a hip fracture or acute infection. Once a pressure ulcer has developed, however, the goal is to heal it by optimizing regional blood flow (by use of a stent or vascular bypass surgery), managing underlying illnesses (such as diabetes, hypothyroidism or congestive heart failure) and providing adequate caloric and protein intake (whether through use of dietary supplements by mouth or by use of tube feeding). If the ulcer has become chronic, the ultimate goal changes from healing the wound to controlling symptoms (such as foul odour, pain, discomfort and infection) and preventing complications, thereby contributing to the patient’s overall well-being; providing support for the patient’s family is also important. Recent advances in wound dressings allow for greater control of symptoms and prevention of complications, and have also enabled the affected patient to be integrated more readily into the family setting and in the community at large. Ethical and end-of-life issues must also be addressed soon after the wound has become chronic.
This article discusses the pathogenesis of pressure ulcer development in the elderly in relation to concomitant diseases, risk factor assessment and the management of such ulcers.