Delirium, while often reversible, is not something that can be casually dismissed, especially when it develops in an older adult.
According to a recent study published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry, the presence of delirium for hospital patients in intensive care units is associated with longer hospital stays and a higher rate of death. Other research has shown that delirium is also connected with a greater likelihood of long term care (nursing home) placement.
Yet another study of more than 500 people published in the jouranl Brain found that the risk of developing dementia after experiencing delirium was significantly greater than for those who had not suffered from delirium.
So, Now What?
Know the signs of delirium, how to distinguish between delirium and dementia, and how to recognize delirium in someone who already has dementia. Remember that someone who has dementia and is hospitalized is at a very high risk to develop delirium.
If you see signs of delirium in your family member, clearly communicate to the medical staff that her behavior and level of confusion are not normal for her. They need to know that you are seeing a change from the usual.
If you are able, spend additional time with your loved one at the hospital. Your familiar presence might reduce anxiety and possibly decrease the need for medications that can be used to calm people. While there are situations where these medications are helpful and effective, they also have the potential to interact with other medications and can cause lethargy and increase confusion at times.
Brain 135 (2012) 2809-2816. Delirium is a strong risk factor for dementia in the oldest-old: a population-based cohort study. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/135/9/2809.full?sid=4a215262-c27b-493e-8329-36fcab549826
General Hospital Psychiatry 34 (2012) 639-646. Incidence, prevalence, risk factor and outcome of delirium in intensive care unit: a study from India. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163834312002009