“How should delirium be managed in the hospital?”
This question came up during a Q & A session, as we were discussing the Choosing Wisely recommendation to avoid tying down older adults who become confused during a hospitalization.
Delirium is a common and very important problem for all older adults in the hospital. It doesn’t just happen to people with Alzheimer’s or a dementia diagnosis. (And, it’s not the same thing.)
But many family caregivers have hardly heard of hospital delirium. This is too bad, since there’s a lot that family caregivers can do to prevent this serious complication, or at least prevent an older loved one from being physically restrained if delirium does occur.
In this post, I’ll review what older adults and families absolutely should know about hospital delirium. And, we’ll cover some of the things you can do if it happens to your loved one.
Why hospital delirium is so important to know about
Delirium is a state of worse-than-usual mental function, brought on by illness or some kind of stress on the body or mind.
Although people with dementia are especially prone to develop delirium, delirium can and does affect many aging adults who don’t have Alzheimer’s or another dementia diagnosis. Here are some facts that all older adults and family caregivers should know:
- Delirium is very common during hospitalization. Delirium can affect up to half of older patients in a hospital. Risk factors include having pre-existing dementia and undergoing surgery. Having had delirium in the past is also a strong risk factor.
- Delirium is strongly associated with worse health outcomes. Short-term problems linked to delirium include falls and longer hospital stays. Longer-term consequences can include speeding up cognitive decline, and a higher chance of dying within the following year.
- Delirium is often missed by hospital staff. Busy hospital staff may not realize that an older person is more confused than usual, especially if the delirium is of the “quiet” type. (Although many people are restless when delirious, it’s also common for people to become quiet and “spaced out.”)
- Delirium is multifactorial. There often isn’t a single cause for delirium. Instead, it tends to happen due to a combination of triggers (illness, pain, medication side-effects) and risk factors (dementia, or pre-dementia). This means that treatment — and prevention — often require a multi-pronged approach.
To summarize, delirium is common, serious, and often missed by hospital staff.
Fortunately, there’s a lot that you can do as a family caregiver. In particular, you can help your loved one more safely get through a hospitalization by:
- Taking steps to prevent delirium;
- Keeping an eye out for any new or worse-than-usual mental states that might signal delirium;
- Making sure hospital staff address the problem if it does happen;
- Questioning things if the hospital resorts to tying a person down, before all other options have been tried. (This last one is a Choosing Wisely recommendation.)
How to prevent hospital delirium
Now, not all hospital delirium can be prevented. Some people are very sick, or very prone to delirium, and it’s certainly possible to develop delirium even when all triggers and risk factors have been addressed. Furthermore, many older adults are already delirious when they first get hospitalized.
Still, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the chance of a bad delirium. Experts estimate that about 40% of delirium cases are preventable.
The ideal is to be hospitalized in a facility that has already set up a multi-disciplinary delirium prevention approach, such as the Hospital Elder Life Program. Other hospitals have Acute Care for Elders units (also called “ACE” units) which also provide a special environment meant to minimize the hospital stressors that can tip an older person into delirium.
For elective surgeries, such as joint replacements, look for a hospital that has set up a geriatric co-management program for orthopedics, such as this one.
Here are some specific interventions that help reduce delirium, and how you can help as a caregiver:
- Minimize sleep deprivation. Consider asking the nurses if it’s possible to avoid blood pressure checks in the middle of the night. A quieter room can help. Do NOT ask for sleeping pills, however! Even a mild sedative, such as diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl) increases the risk of developing delirium. Sleeping pills can also make delirium worse in someone who is already affected.
- Minimize vision and hearing impairments. Make sure the older person has glasses and hearing aids available, if they usually need them.
- Provide familiar objects and reassuring companionship. A few family photos can bring some soothing cheer to an older person’s hospital stay. Family or friends at bedside are also often very helpful, especially since they can help gently reorient an older person to where he is, and what’s been going on.
- Avoid overwhelming or overstimulating the person. Try to minimize mental strain or emotional stress for the person. A calm reassuring presence is ideal. If you need to give instructions or discuss something, try to keep things simple.
- Encourage physical activity and mobilization. Although many older people are sick or weak while in the hospital, it’s important to encourage safe activity as soon as possible. Physical therapy and minimizing bladder catheters (which can tether an older person to the bed) can help.
- Avoid sedatives and tranquilizers. Especially if the older person is restless or having difficulty sleeping, it’s not uncommon for sedatives such as diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl) to be prescribed. But these can increase the risk of delirium, and should be avoided. So instead, try non-drug relaxation therapies such as soothing music, massage, a cup of tea, and familiar companionship.
- Minimize pain and discomforts. Ask the older person if he or she feels bothered by pain or constipation. If so, bring it up to the doctors. It’s not uncommon for pain to go inadequately treated unless family caregivers help an older patient bring it to the doctors’ attention.
For more useful ideas, see this family tip sheet from the Hospital Elder Life Program.
If you think your loved one has developed delirium, make sure the doctors and nurses know about it. You may want to ask them what their plan is for evaluating and managing it. This will help you stay up-to-speed on the hospital course.
Some hospitals may even interview families to help diagnose delirium, using something called the FAM-CAM (short for Family Confusion Assessment Method) tool. The Confusion Assessment Method is generally considered the gold standard for diagnosing delirium.
How hospital delirium is treated
To treat delirium, here’s what the doctors and nurses usually do:
- Identify and reverse as many triggers as possible. Remember, delirium is often multi-factorial. So even if there is a urinary tract infection that seems to have brought it on, the hospital team should try to spot any other factors that could be contributing (such as a medication side-effect, or a lack of glasses).
- Provide supportive care. It’s especially important to provide a calm restorative environment when a person is suffering from delirium. People may do better if they can avoid frequent room changes, and if they have a window allowing orientation to daylight.
- Prevent injury and manage difficult behaviors. This can be very challenging in those patients who become restless when delirious. Some hospitals have special “delirium rooms,” in which trained staff provide non-drug management of disoriented patients. As a last resort, the doctors do sometimes use low doses of medication. Research suggests that a small dose of antipsychotic, such as Haldol, is generally better than using a benzodiazepine (such as Ativan) which is more likely to make an older person’s confusion worse.
What you can do if an older person becomes delirious in the hospital
It can be scary to see an older person confused in the hospital, especially if you know that delirium can have serious consequences.
First and foremost, try not to panic. It’s time to hope for the best. Focus on doing what you can to help the delirium resolve.
As a family caregiver, you can play a very important role in providing a supportive and reassuring presence during an older person’s delirium. You can also:
- Advocate for minimum disruptions, and a quieter more pleasant room if possible.
- Make sure glasses and hearing aids are available, if needed.
- Help your loved one speak up if you think pain or constipation may be a problem.
- Question things if the hospital staff want to physically restrain the older person in bed. (This is a Choosing Wisely recommendation.) In many cases, if a person is dangerously restless, it’s better to start by trying a low dose of anti-psychotic, as mentioned above. Physically restraining a person often increases agitation and can lead to injury.
If you are of the really vigilant and proactive type, you may want to double-check that your loved one isn’t getting any sedatives or anticholinergic medications that make confusion worse. Even though these medications are risky for hospitalized older adults, it’s not uncommon for them to be prescribed!
What to expect after delirium: Even when all the right things are done — including getting the person home to a restful familiar environment — it often still takes a while for delirium to get better. In fact, it’s pretty common for it to take weeks — or even months — for delirium to completely resolve in an older adult. In some cases, the person never recovers back to their prior normal.
For more on delirium, see:
- 10 Things to Know About Delirium (includes information on delirium vs. dementia)
- Delirium: How Caregivers Can Protect People With Alzheimer’s (includes a list of helpful online resources that I’ve reviewed)
- A Common Problem That Speeds Alzheimer’s Decline, and How to Avoid It
You can also listen to our podcast episode, featuring leading delirium researcher Dr. Sharon Inouye, the founder of the Hospital Elder Life Program:
This article was first published in 2014, and was last updated by Dr. K in March 2022. As we are now at 200+ comments, the comments section has been closed to new comments. Thank you!