Mum's absence(s): conceptual insights into absence as loss during a loved one's delirium

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Abstract

Aims and objectives.

To examine qualitative research findings about family experiences of absence or loss during older person delirium, and provide a critical discussion of the similarities and differences in these experiences with conceptual understandings of absence and loss.

Background.

Families who care for older people with chronic illnesses experience many losses. However, the nondeath loss experiences of family during an older loved one's delirium, an acute condition accompanied by marked changes in demeanour, have received little consideration.

Design.

Discursive position paper.

Methods.

The findings from two qualitative research studies about family experiences during an older loved one's delirium are discussed in relation to the concepts of absence and nondeath loss.

Results.

The uncharacteristic behaviours and cognitive changes that accompany delirium may estrange family who, despite the older person's corporeal presence, sense the profound absence or loss of their loved one. Although the notion of absence, a nondeath loss, is similar to the experiences of family of people with chronic conditions, there are differences that distinguish these encounters. The similarities and differences between absence during delirium and the concepts of psychological absence, nonfinite loss and psychosocial death are discussed. Psychosocial death, reversibility/irreversibility and partial marked change, are suggested as conceptual descriptions for the absence families experience during an older loved one's delirium.

Conclusions.

The sense of absence or loss that family may experience during their older loved one's delirium needs to be recognised, understood and addressed by healthcare staff. Understanding or appreciating conceptualisations of absence, as a nondeath loss, may enhance understandings of family member needs during delirium and enable better support strategies.

Relevance to clinical practice.

Conceptualisations of absence enhance understandings of family distress and needs during their older loved one's delirium. The potential for family members to experience their loved one's absence during delirium, a nondeath loss, needs to be considered by healthcare staff. Family experiences of absence during delirium need to be recognised by healthcare staff, acknowledged as a potential source of distress, and considered when involving family in the older person's care. Nurses are ideally placed to respond compassionately and provide appropriate family member re-assurance, support and information during delirium. Information should include possible impacts on family and coping strategies.

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