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Delirium: Understanding What It Is & Treatment Options


If you are a caregiver to a family member that is over the age of 65, has been diagnosed with dementia, has poor hearing or vision, or is dealing with multiple medical issues, he or she is at a higher risk of developing delirium.

Many memory care communities and programs provide treatment and seek to reduce the likelihood of individuals developing delirium. The dementia care program at Woodland Ridge in Smyrna, Georgia, helps prevent the condition or recognize the signs as early as possible.

Delirium can be difficult to recognize, which is why Woodland Ridge would like to help you better understand what delirium is and how to approach the condition.

What Is Delirium?

Delirium is an abrupt change in one’s brain that causes mental confusion and emotional disruption. These sudden changes make it difficult to think clearly, sleep, or focus.

“Delirium can often be traced to one or more contributing factors, such as a severe or chronic illness, changes in metabolic balance (such as low sodium), medication, infection, surgery, or alcohol or drug intoxication or withdrawal (Mayo Clinic).”

Unfortunately, symptoms of delirium and dementia are similar, which is why it can often be overlooked. It’s important to keep a healthcare professional up-to-date on any behavioral or mental changes your family member experiences for an accurate diagnosis.

The symptoms of delirium typically start suddenly, over a few hours or a few days, and will often come and go. Common symptoms include:

  • Changes in alertness (usually more alert in the morning, less at night)
  • Changing levels of consciousness
  • Confusion and trouble concentrating
  • Disorganized thinking (talking in a way that doesn’t make sense)
  • Emotional changes: anger, agitation, depression, irritability, overexcitement
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Memory problems, especially with short-term memory

Types of Delirium

There are three types of delirium that have been classified based on their severity and characteristics.

Hyperactive Delirium – This delirium is somewhat easy to spot as it causes sleep disturbances, hallucinations, rapid mood swings, and agitation.

Hypoactive Delirium – This form of delirium appears as a lack of energy, depression, abnormal drowsiness, and sluggishness.

Mixed Delirium – This type includes symptoms from both hypoactive and hyperactive delirium; a person may quickly switch from agitation to a state of sluggishness.

Diagnosing & Treatment of Delirium

If you notice any of the above symptoms, contact a healthcare provider. Diagnosis of delirium can include an analysis of a person’s medical history, physical or neurological tests, as well as other tests and scans to rule out other health conditions.

The primary treatment of delirium focuses on the cause; often, treating the cause will lead to recovery. Causes for delirium developing in an older adult could include:

  • Certain medications or drug toxicity
  • A medical condition, such as a stroke, heart attack, or an injury from a fall
  • Metabolic imbalances, such as low sodium or low calcium
  • Severe, chronic or terminal illness
  • Urinary tract infection, pneumonia or the flu
  • Exposure to a toxin, such as carbon monoxide
  • Malnutrition or dehydration
  • Surgery or other medical procedures that include anesthesia

Can You Prevent Delirium?

“The most successful approach to preventing delirium is to target risk factors that might trigger an episode. Hospital environments present a special challenge — frequent room changes, invasive procedures, loud noises, poor lighting, and lack of natural light and sleep can worsen confusion (Mayo Clinic).”

In the right care, delirium can be reduced by 30% among those who are at risk. At Woodland Ridge, our dementia care program, known as Friends For Life, offers a safe, secure, welcoming environment that feels like home for each resident. We understand that a supportive and calm environment can help someone dealing with or recovering from delirium. We ensure 24-hour care, avoid unnecessary noise at night (when symptoms of delirium can worsen), and avoid over-stimulating situations that could cause agitation or confuse a resident.


To learn more about Woodland Ridge’s memory care and Friends for Life program, we encourage you to contact our team of experts.

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