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UMSL Nursing Student's Research Looks At Immobility After Hospital Stays — And Solutions

Lila Moersch just earned her PhD in nursing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Lila Moersch
Lila Moersch just earned her Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In her four-plus decades working as a nurse, Lila Moersch has seen a lot — including the loss of mobility that many older patients experience following hospitalization. Time and again, she’s observed adults who were active and independent prior to a hospital stay struggle to walk and take care of themselves afterward.

In recent years, the problem hit home for Moersch as two relatives experienced such immobility. That’s part of what prompted the dissertation she just completed as part of her doctoral program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ College of Nursing. In her research, she offers a closer look at this topic — and recommendations for better outcomes for patients post-hospitalization.

According to Moersch’s findings, there’s enormous room for improvement: Only one of the 10 people who participated in her qualitative study — all adults 60 or older who were in the hospital for at least a week — returned to their previous mobility level.

“They were all very active before they got sick,” Moersch told St. Louis on the Air.

On Monday’s show, on the heels of graduating Saturday with her Ph.D. in nursing, Moersch joined host Sarah Fenske to dig into the causes of mobility loss as well as some solutions.

She noted that the challenges are bigger for older adults, who are already naturally losing muscle mass as they age.

“They have to work to [just] get back to their normal [level of mobility]. They have to work,” Moersch said. “But they can do it.”

Moersch suggests setting small goals and taking small steps, along with accepting the reality that the process of bouncing back can take a significant period of time.

She sees room, in some cases, for patients to be more active even during their hospitalization, though she acknowledges that hospital staffing levels and concerns about the possibility of falls also have to be taken into consideration.

“It’s difficult. It really is. But I just feel like for the quality of life for our patients, this is something that we need to do,” Moersch said, “even if it’s [helping] them walk to the bathroom or we just help them walk a little bit in the room, help them get to the shower … just use your muscles just a little bit. It’s better than nothing, and you will not suffer the effects as deeply as if you don’t use your muscles at all.”

Back on the homefront, she added, persistence is key to regaining independence and strength.

“Sometimes you might have a bad day and you might not do as well. … But you just do a little bit at a time, and it makes a difference,” Moersch said.

She plans to publish her dissertation as a scholarly journal article and hopes it will have an impact on patient care.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.