It used to be considered normal and harmless for a hospital patient to be disoriented following surgery or while recovering from illness.
Studies now show that delirium actually has serious consequences. In particular, it can make memory loss and dementia worse. It can last long after the hospitalization. And it seems to even increase the person’s chance of dying during the next year. Patients in intensive care are the most at risk.
- Confused thinking. Like dementia, delirium includes poor memory, difficulty speaking and reading, and garbled speech. Unlike dementia, delirium comes on within a matter of hours or days, not years.
- Reduced awareness of the environment. Your relative may have hallucinations or focus on unusual things. Alternatively, he or she may simply seem far away, withdrawn, and unresponsive.
- Strong emotions. Changes in mood—especially anxiety or depression—are common signs. Some people yell out or strike out.
What you can do
If your loved one goes into the hospital, strive to make sure he or she
- has a familiar person present. A friend or family member can be very reassuring in the midst of all the strangers in a hospital;
- has glasses and hearing aids. The ability to engage with the surroundings supports brain function. Bring books or other favorite pastimes to encourage focused activity;
- drinks plenty of fluid. Dehydration can cause delirium;
- is allowed to sleep with minimal interruptions. Unbroken sleep helps with staying oriented and with overall healing;
- is on minimal medication. Advocate for nondrug treatment of anxiety and sleep problems. Drugs that slow the brain contribute to delirium;
- walks as soon and as often as possible. This keeps the brain active and helps the body process medications.
If you notice signs of delirium
Let the hospital staff know right away. They do not know your family member the way you do, so they may not recognize that things are amiss.