If an elderly loved one is mentally alert one day and confused or delirious the next it may not be Alzheimer's Disease. Sudden signs of dementia is one obvious symptom of a considerable number of medical conditions that are potentially life threatening if untreated.
If you notice symptoms of delirium in a loved one develop suddenly, call their doctor immediately, or better yet get them to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room.
I recently went through this with my sharp as a tack mother. After breaking her hip and staying in a skilled nursing facility for several weeks she was severely confused and disoriented upon check out. She knew her name and birthday, but couldn't tell you the name of the street she lived on and was even struggling to come up with the right words and lost her train of thought mid-sentence. Absolutely nothing like her normal state.
At first I thought they may have given her the wrong medication at the skilled nursing facility, but after a call to her insurance company nurse line I took her to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night. They kept her for 6 days treating a urinary tract infection, hypercalcemia and lacunar strokes.
Dementia versus Delirium
To the lay person dementia and delirium are basically the same thing: the person isn't thinking clearly or making sense.
If you found this article via a search engine you likely confused the two as I did the first time I started searching too.
Dementia is a decrease in memory, problem- solving ability and judgement that progresses over weeks or months. It still needs to be addressed by a doctor, but if the symptoms are severe overnight it is probably not Alzheimer's.
Delirium is a sudden change in the person's mental state. They may be confused, groggy, agitated, withdrawn, delusional, paranoid, etc. This is usually a symptom of something physically wrong with the person.
If it isn't Alzheimer's, what could it be?
Many of us would be relieved to know our loved one isn't suffering from permanent dementia.
My Grandma Ruth had Alzheimer's. She knew my son was born and then slowly over the next few years forgot him, then me, then mom and eventually even herself. It sucks. It is excruciating for loved ones to watch. So, please know that I am not belittling that experience. Alzheimer's and dementia are rough, but they are not immediately life threatening.
If the delirium comes on within days there are numerous serious medical conditions that could be causing it. Chances are most of their brain function will come back, but it is urgent to get to the root cause.
When I tell people that a urinary tract infection can cause dementia-like symptoms in the elderly I get two responses
- You're kidding right?
- I knew that because I went through it with my... grandparent, parent, etc.
Most people do not know unless they have seen it in a loved one. So, now you know and hopefully aren't worried about a loved one as you are reading this.
A few medical conditions that can cause temporary confusion and delirium:
- head injury
- reaction to medication
- electrolyte imbalance
That's some scary stuff right there, isn't it?
You can read more on WebMD.
But, if the symptoms are severe I highly urge you to get your loved one to urgent care right away. You can always continue reading while you are waiting for the pros to run their tests. If it turns out to be nothing serious, then you are out a few hundred dollars perhaps. Isn't the piece of mind worth that?Is sudden confusion in the elderly a sign of dementia or something potentially life threatening?
Be prepared before something happens
Until this happened recently, my mother was 100% mentally capable despite her rheumatoid arthritis and few other physical issues. Luckily, she had done quite a few things to make things easier for me just in case this happened.
Before the unexpected happens, have the following information available to you about any elderly relatives that you may be called upon to make decisions for:
- current medications list
- medical insurance information (copies of medicare and supplemental insurance cards)
- names and phone numbers of doctors
- have them list you as a contact with the doctors and insurance companies (otherwise they may not talk to you)
- contact information for anyone else they may want contacted
- living will (aka advanced medical directive)*
- power of attorney*
*These legal documents need to be prepared by a lawyer. There are DIY kits available online. Luckily, my brother deferred to me on all decisions with no animosity between us. This might not be the case in your family. If there is a chance family members will debate the decisions of the loved one in an emergency, have the loved one consult an attorney while they are mentally able.
However you want to store the information is fine. Scan it and keep it on the cloud. Have hard copies in a safe place at your home and theirs. Just be sure you have it all taken care of while the loved one is able to do it and no one is under any pressure or stress.Be prepared to care for an elderly loved one ahead of time with this handychecklist.
How about you?
Do you have an advanced medical directive done yet? (It's on my to do list now). Have you ever dealt with this with a loved one? Did I miss something? Any other documents or information to keep on file? Share your thought below.