A May 2018 study from Harvard Medical School found that when a senior experiences delirium during a hospital stay, it’s more distressing to their family than it is to the patient. Delirium can certainly be an upsetting thing to see and hear! Perhaps your elderly mother goes to the hospital for a hip replacement. As the anesthesia wears off, you might think something is very wrong. Mom is accusing the nurse of trying to poison her, and moaning at the top of her voice. Maybe she’s suddenly developed dementia?
Most likely, your loved one is experiencing hospital delirium. Patients with delirium act strangely and out of character. They may have hallucinations and memory problems. They might be agitated, or very lethargic. And most upsetting for family, they might exhibit paranoia and irrational anger.
What causes delirium?
Seniors can experience delirium in many settings, but it’s especially common in the hospital and caused by a combination of factors. Your loved one might have an infection or illness. They might be in pain. They might be taking medications that are known to cause delirium, such as those prescribed for depression, sleep problems, pain, heart problems, even the common cold. And the hospital environment itself, an unfamiliar environment with bright lights and alarms going off, can be disorienting and fragment their sleep.
Is delirium serious?
Delirium almost always disappears once a patient is discharged from the hospital. But it may be weeks and even months before some patients make a full recovery. And studies show that delirium raises the risk of dementia, causing a decline in thinking skills and memory from which some patients may not bounce back.
Can delirium be prevented?
Hospitals these days are more sensitive to the special needs of older patients. Some have special units for senior patients, where regular sleep and activity patterns can be better maintained, and the use of anesthesia and other medications carefully monitored. The support of family and friends also plays a big role. In January 2018, St. Michael’s Hospital researchers noted that patients who have the support of family caregivers are 30 percent less likely to experience delirium following elective surgery. Having supportive family on the scene helps keeps patients oriented, and family can take care of seemingly small but significant things like helping their loved one with eyeglasses and hearing aids.
How is delirium diagnosed?
Dr. James Rudolph of the American Delirium Society says that above all, “we need to make sure we are alert to signs of delirium and address it as soon as possible.” Yet in April 2018, the American Geriatrics Society reported that hospital personnel identify fewer than half of all delirium cases in older patients. Who is best to spot the signs? If you are a family member, the answer is you! Chances are the personnel in the hospital have never met your loved one before, so they don’t know your loved one’s “normal.” They might mistake agitation or lethargy for dementia or depression. You are the best to note that something’s not right. You have valuable information that the doctors and nurses need.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about hospitalization or delirium, or if your loved one is suffering from dementia or depression.