Delirium in the elderly displays a lot of the same symptoms as dementia, however the time course and pattern of symptoms differ.

Delirium and dementia are both disorders that impact cognition. As a result of the similarities, delirium may go unrecognised for people with dementia – even by healthcare professionals.

Also sometimes people may get incorrectly labelled with dementia when actually it could be delirium.

It is not common practice for medical professionals to newly diagnose people with dementia whilst in hospital on their very first visit, without any prior knowledge or background history of the person. As delirium is often the cause.

Delirium often comes on quickly and can occur separately or at the same time in older people (delirium can present on a background of dementia).

Delirium can be caused from dehydration, infection, pain, constipation or medications to name a few.

What are the Symptoms?

If your loved one is not themselves, then say something.

The following symptoms of delirium are important for caregivers and aged care workers to be aware of:

  • Does the person you are caring for seem to be experiencing changes in awareness of their surroundings?
  • Are they less alert or reacting more slowly?
  • Has there been an obvious change in activity or lack of activity?
  • Are they restless, agitated or sleeping more than usual?
  • Are they more emotional or has their mood changed? This includes anger, anxiety, depression and other emotions.
  • Has there been any instances of incontinence?
  • Do you feel they are simply not themselves?

Treating Delirium is a Medical Emergency

Treatment of delirium is best managed when it is recognised early and causes are treated as soon as possible.

Depending on the reasons for the delirium, the person might be admitted to a hospital for a short time for observation, safety or to undergo treatment that cannot be handled either in the aged care facility or their home.

Some episodes of delirium will be short-lived where causes will subside and the episode will pass, but it is necessary for caregivers to be aware and familiar with the symptoms and still report the changes to their doctor sooner rather than later.

As early detection and treatment of the causes will lead to better outcomes for the person.

It’s possible that doctors may prescribe a new medication to minimise the symptoms of delirium as sometimes they can experience hallucinations and/or delusions which cause them distress.

In instances where the person may cause harm to themselves or others around them it may be necessary.

As explained early on, Delirium is quite similar to the initial characteristics of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

This is why any symptoms that present should be reported and then watched carefully so that an accurate diagnosis and necessary treatment can ensue.

How long will it last?

Delirium usually only extends for around a week, but in some cases may take more than a few weeks for the person to return to what they believe to be how they felt and functioned before the episode began.
Educating ourselves about the things that can happen are the best way to ensure safety for everyone.

It may also present itself more than once and more often the older a person gets. Watch for the symptoms and know the course of action to take.

Did you know?

Dementia increases the chances of developing delirium approximately five-fold.
A diagnosis of dementia makes the brain more susceptible to developing a delirium.

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