Postoperative delirium (POD) is an acute syndrome including inattention and impaired cognition that affects approximately 42% of older cardiac surgical patients. POD is linked to adverse outcomes including morbidity, mortality, and further cognitive decline. Less is known about the subjective psychological experience of POD and its ongoing impact on well-being.
We performed a qualitative analysis of the long-term psychological sequelae of older adults who experience POD after cardiac surgery. We sampled 30 patients aged 60 years and older who experienced at least 2 episodes of POD during a prior hospital admission. We administered semistructured interviews with participants via telephone 3 to 5 years postoperatively. Interviews were transcribed and thematically analyzed. Data were interpreted in accordance with the naturalist paradigm.
Three overarching themes emerged in our qualitative analysis. The first reflected the multifaceted presentation of POD, including distortion of time and reality; feelings of isolation; and a loss of self, identity, and control. The second theme reflected the psychological challenges associated with functional decline after surgery. Common examples of functional decline included cognitive difficulties, excessive fatigue, and a perceived loss of independence. The final theme captured the emotional sequelae of acute illness, which included low mood, reduced motivation, and social comparisons.
Our findings emphasize the multidimensional experience of POD and long-term effects on psychological wellbeing. Our research highlights the beneficial role multidisciplinary clinicians play in managing POD including strategies that may be embedded into clinical practice and helps anesthesiologists understand why patients who have experienced POD in the past may present with specific concerns should they require subsequent surgery.