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Confusion or delirium in older people

Confusion or delirium in older people can happen quite quickly and needs urgent medical attention. If your parent seems unusually confused or disorientated then do not delay seeking immediate medical advice – they could have delirium and need emergency care.  

What is delirium?

Delirium is a sudden worsening of a person’s mental state.  It starts rather suddenly - over the course of a few hours or days – and is triggered by a physical condition of some sort. It is usually temporary and it improves once the underlying problem resolves.   Although most people get better quite quickly, around one in five people continue to be affected for weeks or even months. 

What triggers delirium?

It can be triggered by a range of physical conditions such as an infection, surgery, injuries, the side effects of medicines, or even constipation.  Sometimes there is more than one cause and sometimes the cause is never found. 

Who gets delirium?

Delirium is more common in older people, and those with hearing or sight loss, frailty or multiple illnesses.   Someone who has had delirium is more likely to suffer from it again.   

What are the symptoms of confusion or delirium in older people?

Delirium affects people differently.  Sometimes the symptoms are worse at night time.  

Symptoms include:

  • being very agitated or restless 
  • being sleepy and slow to move or answer 
  • being reluctant to eat or drink 
  • having a change in personality
  • being less aware of surroundings 
  • being unable to speak clearly or follow conversations 
  • being confused 
  • having dreams that may sometimes be frightening and that may carry on when awake 
  • seeing or hearing things that aren’t real 
  • thinking that other people are harmful or intend harm

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October 2020

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