Delirium in the Elderly
Understanding this Medical Emergency
Delirium is a sudden onset of mental confusion causing changes in behavior. It is important to know that delirium is not dementia and older people are at greatest risk. Learn to recognize the symptoms early, it can save a life!
What does Delirium look like?
- Restless and upset
- Slurred speech
- Not making sense
- Mix-up days and nights
- Sleepy, then alert
- Cannot concentrate
- More alert than normal
- Not knowing where you are
- Trouble staying awake
What causes Delirium?
- Not taking medication
- Surgery with anesthesia
- High/low blood sugar
What puts someone at risk for developing Delirium?
Some causes are medication, infection, and being hospitalized. You are more likely to develop it if you:
- Had delirium in the past
- Have memory problems
- Problems with sleep
- Problems with hearing
- Take more than 5 medications
How is it treated?
Treatment may include a small amount of medication, and removing the cause of the delirium
Is Delirium permanent?
Delirium often clears in a few days or weeks. Some may not respond to treatment for many weeks. You may also see problems with memory and thought process that do not go away. Talk to your health provider about your concerns.
Questions to ask your health care provider:
- What is causing delirium?
- How long will it last?
- Will my family member get better?
- Can I prevent it?
- Can environmental changes help?
- How can we as a family help?
What can I do to help?
- Promote healthy rest and sleep. Reduce noise; keep lights low when resting; provide comfort with a blanket, warm drink, or backrub; and try to discourage use of sleeping pills
- Promote physical activity such as walking and safe activities
- Keep them hydrated with fluids and help with eating
- Promote healthy hearing and vision with hearing aids, glasses, and enough light
- Create mental stimulation by visiting, talking about events and reading out loud
Resources: Hamilton Health Science patient education, regional Geriatric Program (2002); Capital Health Region Day Program (1997); Upper Geriatric Outreach Program (2004); and North York General Hospital (2003).
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