A fairly common medical complication is hospitalization delirium – a temporary state of confusion that sometimes occurs after surgery or a serious illness. Delirium can occur in patients of any age, but it is especially common in older adults. More than half of all hospitalized elders experience delirium.

It was once thought unavoidable, but medical professionals are now being urged to take steps to prevent and manage delirium. Hospitals have put new protocols into place to lower the risk. Patients and family caregivers must be aware of this preventable complication.

Delirium is a sudden, temporary change in brain function that causes confusion, hallucinations and memory problems. Patients with delirium may be lethargic or agitated. They may exhibit personality changes, such as anger, paranoia and agitation. It can be the result of sedatives and other medications, sleep deprivation, pain, light and noise, the effects of anesthesia, dehydration, infection, inactivity, bladder catheters, or a combination of factors.

Work with the nurses and doctors to avoid delirium. Provide them with information regarding any time the patient has been confused in the past. Help to reorient your family member regarding the date, time, where she is and why. If she wears glasses or hearing aids, bring them to the hospital so she can use them. You must be open and honest with doctors and nurses regarding any behaviors that you notice in your loved one, even after you leave the hospital.

Delirium is often mistaken for dementia. You know your family member best. Be an advocate and work with the medical staff on these issues. Report signs of delirium and let the staff know if there is a history, or not, of dementia. Help with following medical instructions and ensure your loved-one is properly cared for, in the facility and once she returns home. You can learn more online at: www.icudelirium.org

Seven steps to reduce the risk of delirium:

  1. Bring a complete list of all medications, with their dosages, to the hospital.
  2. Prepare an information sheet listing all allergies,  names and phone numbers of physicians, the name of the patient’s pharmacy and all known medical conditions.
  3. Bring glasses, hearing aids (with fresh batteries), and dentures to the hospital.
  4. Help orient the patient throughout the day.
  5. When giving instructions, state one fact or simple task at a time. Do not overwhelm or over stimulate the patient.
  6. Stay with the patient as much as possible.
  7. If you detect new signs that could indicate delirium – confusion, memory problems, personality changes – discuss these with the staff right away.