It is a myth that it’s not unusual to be confused when you get older. The truth is that cognitive function is unique to everyone and does not automatically decline with age.
Two types/causes of confusion in older people are delirium and dementia. Ironically, they are often “confused” with one another since symptoms may be similar and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. It is important to keep in mind that these are two distinct conditions.
How do you know what you are dealing with?
Delirium is an acute issue that requires immediate intervention. It comes on suddenly and is usually caused by an infection (urinary tract or pneumonia being two of the most common), or medication (such as a reaction to a new medication or to anesthesia following surgery.) An older person with delirium may be agitated or lethargic. It is usually reversible with prompt medical attention. Be sure to be able to explain your loved one’s level of functioning before the confusion started to the doctor and bring a list of all medications with you.
Dementia is different from normal cognitive changes of aging. It is more long term and irreversible and has a more gradual course. It is progressive and chronic. Individuals with dementia may have memory or language impairment among other disturbances that result in decline in their level of functioning. Dementia may be related to a medical condition such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Delirium and dementia may occur together in medically sick older patients. Older people recovering in a hospital or long term care facility may be more susceptible to delirium. Uncovering the underlying cause and providing mental stimulation and additional support can help resolve this condition.
The best treatment for delirium is prevention. If you notice signs of delirium or dementia in a loved one you should contact a physician for further evaluation.