Understanding Delirium & the Effects it Can Have on Senior Loved Ones

Understanding Delirium & the Effects it Can Have on Senior Loved Ones

Dementia is a condition of impaired cognition that happens over time, the changes from which are seen in a progressive decline. Delirium may include the same behaviors that people with dementia exhibit but generally with a more rapid onset.

Some of your senior loved ones may have been diagnosed during a hospital stay with delirium and it remained to discharge and into the rehabilitation facility.

This is scary for many family caregivers and other loved ones because of the dangerous effect it can have on your loved one.

According to the Delirium Society, more than 7 million patients each year arrive with delirium to the hospital and nearly half of those continue to experience delirium at discharge. It has been estimated that delirium is the most common complication of hospitalized seniors.

Delirium Explained

Delirium is also known as acute confusional state and is a reversible disorder of cognitive function. Many patients are not accurately diagnosed with delirium due to the lack of a quick means to assess their symptoms.

Delirium is essentially a thinking and attention deficit disorder and is commonly found in older people.

It is estimated that delirium affects 7% to 10% of older patients in the emergency department and up to 56% of hospitalized patients; the occurrence may be that high in long term senior care and rehabilitation settings as well. It affects half of seniors after hip fracture surgery and vascular surgery.

Unfortunately, it has also been associated with mortality rates of 10% to 26%, according to some studies.

Symptoms of Delirium Your Senior May Exhibit

These are some of the symptoms of delirium.

  • At times, seniors may look depressed.
  • People with delirium are often considered to be restless and agitated.
  • The person cannot hold a conversation even when asked about old memories.
  • They may be easily distracted into rapid changes of idea and theme.
  • Someone with delirium has difficulty listening.
  • They are unable to give their own personal history.
  • Disorientation and poor sleep pattern can signal delirium.
  • Hallucinations may be present.

Simply having these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean they have delirium but that their physician should be consulted.

Common Risk Factors For Delirium

These are some of the common risk factors associated with delirium.

  • aging
  • dementia, cognitive impairment
  • ill-health
  • institutional care
  • sleep deprivation
  • sensory impairment
  • poor hydration/nutritional status
  • immobility
  • large number of medications
  • drug and alcohol use/misuse or withdrawal
  • pain
  • infection

Delirium Treatment

Being appropriately diagnosed and getting the correct treatment will improve health outcomes for your senior. When medications and other treatments are given to stop observed behaviors without properly understanding the underlying cause, it can mask the real problem of delirium, delay correct treatment and lead to poorer outcomes.

*receive adequate hydration and nutrition

*receive appropriate oxygenation

*treat any source of pain

*treat possible infection

*treat with medication sparingly

*keep active by walking or mobilization to avoid muscle loss and weakness

*orient to a normal night and day sleep schedule to ensure adequate sleep

*keep mind active

*do NOT restrain the person as this can worsen the problem

Delirium and dementia may co-exist. They are different, however, and delirium usually has a cause that can be resolved so that the rapid changes will not lead to further health decline and hospitalization.

You can help prevent delirium in your senior by helping them to stay adequately hydrated, be sure they wear their glasses and hearing aids, manage their sleep pattern being sure they have adequate light during the day and sleep thoroughly at night, avoid constipation, and keep their minds active with conversation and engagement.

If you have any questions about your senior, we encourage you to discuss you concerns with your senior’s doctor to be sure everything that can be is being done.

Do you have a story to share about delirium? We would love for you to share your experience to help others better understand and cope when they encounter it in their own loved ones.


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