June 2024

Changes in Thinking (Delirium) – Module 6

My wife started a new medication and then, all of a sudden, it was like she was a different person. She couldn’t remember any of my instructions and she was up all night walking around the house. She was acting very strange and it was frightening! The doctor stopped the new medication and she went back to being herself. I later found out that she had developed a delirium from the new medications she was taking.

– A caregiver from Kingston, ON

It can be frightening to witness a delirium. Watching a person all of a sudden change from their normal to thinking and behaving strangely can be scary.

Delirium is not well understood by the general public. It may be difficult to recognize if you are not aware of what it is. You might find yourself asking questions such as:

  • Why are they behaving this way?
  • How do I know if this is a delirium?
  • How is delirium different than dementia?
  • What can I do to manage this now and prevent it from happening in the future?

Delirium is a term that describes a new, sudden change in a person’s ability to think, remember and understand what is going on around them. A person who is delirious may appear confused, disorganized, hyper, frightened, forgetful, and suspicious of other people. In a delirium, people also commonly hallucinate (e.g. tell you that they see people/objects/animals that are not there).

Delirium is typically caused by something else going on in the body (e.g. infection, withdrawal, sleep deprivation, severe pain, shock, etc.). Delirium typically can be treated as long as the cause of the delirium is determined quickly and treated properly (e.g. taking antibiotics for an infection).

Delirium is different than dementia. This module will help you differentiate between these two topics, discuss dementia briefly, and focus primarily on the topic of delirium. If you are interested in learning more about dementia, there are a number of excellent resources which can be found in the Additional Supports for Dementia section of this module.

Facts About Delirium

Did you know?

  • Delirium is a medical emergency.
  • Delirium is very common and even more so in the hospital setting.
  • It can happen to people of all ages.
  • Delirium is often mistaken for dementia and can go unrecognized because of this.
  • Delirium can be reversed if the cause is found and treated.
  • Delirium can last a few days to a few weeks.
Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • recognize common signs of delirium
  • review common causes/risk factors of delirium
  • differentiate between delirium and dementia
  • identify strategies to manage delirium as a caregiver
  • review strategies to prevent delirium
  • review helpful tips on how to communicate effectively with health care professionals about delirium
  • find additional support related to delirium
Challenging a Myth about Delirium

XBecoming confused and forgetful is part of the natural process of aging.”

Confusion and forgetfulness is not part of the natural process of aging. Confusion is often a sign of something else going on and should be discussed with a health care professional as early as the symptoms are noticed.