Delirium can be prevented, managed

Delirium can be prevented, managed

Feeling disoriented can be an upsetting experience for anyone, but for older adults coping with a medical condition called “delirium,” it can be particularly disturbing.

Delirium is a sudden change in mental function that can cause an older person to behave differently than he or she normally would. Some people become aggressive and agitated when they have delirium, others become sleepy and inactive, while others can experience some combination of the two. They may also appear confused about where they are or the time of day, or they may say things that do not make sense.

While researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact causes of delirium, certain risk factors are well-established. For example, older people who undergo surgery are particularly susceptible to a form of delirium known as “postoperative delirium.”

Other common triggers include:

• Changes in medications, such as starting a new medication or increasing the dose of an older one.

• Dehydration.

• Common lung or urinary tract infections.

• Vision or hearing problems.

• Conditions affecting the brain, such as infection, internal bleeding or stroke.

• Urinary or intestinal problems, such as constipation or the inability to urinate.

• Problems with the heart or lungs, including heart attacks or lung disease.

If you believe a family member or someone you know may be experiencing a delirious episode, alert a health care professional as soon as possible, and try to help orient older adults by reminding them where they are, what time of day it is, and by showing them familiar items. Also, if you are taking care of a hospitalized older adult:

• Alert hospital or other health care staff right away if you notice sudden confusion or abrupt changes in behavior.

• Make sure to bring the older adult’s glasses/hearing aids to the hospital. This can protect against disorientation due to vision and hearing problems.

• After cleared by the health care team, help the older adult walk several times a day. This is key to recovering from surgery and helps protect against delirium.

• Talk to health care professionals about minimizing the use of sleeping medications, restraints or bladder catheters, which can contribute to delirium.

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