doctor talking with senior man in hospital bed with his wife

With its similarities to dementia, delirium is often a baffling condition to comprehend and manage. Seniors are particularly susceptible to delirium, so our aging care experts have collected the following information that can help you recognize and respond appropriately to senior delirium if you suspect it in someone you love.

What are the symptoms of delirium?

Much like dementia, delirium symptoms involve confusion and disorientation, along with other alterations in mental status. The key difference, however, is the onset of these symptoms. In dementia, there is a gradual decrease in cognitive functioning; with delirium, the transformation is abrupt.

There are two kinds of delirium:

  • Hypoactive delirium is the most prevalent form, affecting roughly three-quarters of individuals with delirium. It can present similarly to depression, with listlessness and a slowed response time. Other signs include apathy, a flat affect, and withdrawal from social situations or previously enjoyed activities.
  • Hyperactive delirium produces disorientation, anxiety, hallucinations, restlessness and agitation, difficulty concentrating, rambling, and rapid changes in emotion.

It is important to bear in mind that both forms of delirium can occur at the same time, with the person feeling drowsy and listless one moment followed by feeling agitated and alert the next.

Who is most frequently impacted by delirium?

Those at heightened risk for delirium include:

  • Individuals who have been hospitalized or had a surgical procedure (as many as 10 – 30% of patients)
  • People who are getting close to the end of life
  • Patients in intensive care units
  • Seniors over age 75, specifically those staying in nursing facilities
  • People clinically determined to have certain conditions: stroke, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, cancer, or liver disease
  • Those receiving dialysis
  • People who take multiple medications or diagnosed with more than one chronic condition
  • Hearing- or seeing-impaired individuals

What causes delirium?

The root cause of delirium can be tough to pinpoint, but there are many known contributing factors, including:

  • Dehydration
  • Lack of sleep
  • An overwhelming reaction to an infection
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs or overdose
  • Medication side effects
  • Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism
  • Kidney or liver issues
  • Pain
  • What should you do in the event that you suspect a loved one has senior delirium?

Contact the senior’s doctor right away for an evaluation. They may conduct some simple initial tests, such as asking the individual to solve a basic math problem or to spell a short word backwards. A physical exam, blood and urine tests, and imaging tests like an MRI, CT scan, or x-ray might be ordered to help establish the cause.

What treatment is available for senior delirium?

The medical condition or other reason behind the delirium needs to first be determined and addressed. Hospitalization is often needed to allow for ongoing monitoring of both the delirium itself as well as the treatment being delivered. Options can include:

  • Fluids/electrolytes in the event that person is dehydrated
  • Antibiotics for any infections
  • Antipsychotic medications to ease hallucinations and agitation
  • Benzodiazepines if the delirium is related to alcohol or drug withdrawal

What can you do to provide support?

If caring for the person with delirium at home, the following tips can help:

  • Reassure the person that everything is alright and that you are right there.
  • Play comforting music that the person likes.
  • Provide healthy meals and make certain the person is drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Engage in conversations together to orient the person.
  • Encourage the individual to stay physically active (based on the doctor’s guidelines).
  • Try to establish regular sleeping patterns by keeping your home bright throughout the day, limiting napping during the day, and creating a calm, dark, quiet atmosphere in the evening hours.

Anthem Home Care, a provider of memory care in Corpus Christi, TX and nearby areas, can be a significant help as well for a loved one experiencing delirium. We’re here for as much or as little assistance and support as needed, day or night. Contact us at 361-643-2323 for a free in-home assessment to find out more.