Delirium is a syndrome that is characterized by a significant change in mental functioning and develops over a very short period of time (hours to days) and fluctuates during the day. Delirium is often mistaken for dementia or depression because they share similar symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Reduced ability to pay attention
  • Problems with memory, language, or orientation to time, place, or person

Some people with delirium experience:

  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there) or difficulty differentiating dreams from reality
  • Delusions (false belief that persists in spite of evidence that he belief is untrue, such as the belief that a family member is trying to poison the individual’s food)
  • Agitation or combativeness
  • Disrupted sleep-wake cycles

Delirium on commonly caused by changes in medication, new strokes, or most often, infection (such as urinary tract infection or pneumonia). People with dementia are four times more likely than those who do not have dementia to experience delirium (LaRue, 1993). It remains unclear why some people develop delirium while others with the same conditions do not.

If the delirium is recognized very soon after symptoms begin, it can often be completely reversed by treating the cause (e.g., resolving an infection with antibiotics). However, many seniors, particularly those with dementia, experience lasting effects of delirium. For some, symptoms never completely resolve. Thus, it is important to recognize and treat delirium very quickly.

The above information was provided by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors (SCSA).