Delirium is a term that has gained acceptance within the medical community. Twenty years ago, a clinician could be maligned for using the term in a clinical setting. Many providers consider it a popsy, imprecise, if not inappropriate term. Delirium is actually a precise clinical term that may have profound consequences for the afflicted. It is a cognitive state in which the person is unable to focus their immediate attention.
Schizophrenics are often incorrectly labelled as being in a delirium. Their stream of thought is bizarre and often not pertinent to the immediate situation. While their attention is reduced by the automatic thoughts, schizophrenics are rarely delirious. Similarly, people who suffer with mania or are highly anxious may be labelled with a delirium, but this is also a rare situation. While automatic and unwanted thoughts decrease their attention, these unfortunate individuals are still able to focus their attention at a reduced level.
Individuals suffering with a delirium have an impairment of immediate attention. The attentional deficit far surpasses that observed in people with an Attention-deficit Disorder, which is typically a disorder of sustained attention-not immediate attention. It is not a dream world, since this presupposes the sustained attention to be consistently unrealistic. It is an acute condition that is typically caused by a metabolic or an infectious process. Delirium is more a sign of medical illness than psychological distress. A person immersed in a delirium may incur increasing organic damage the longer they remain in this state. Urinary infections, severe dehydration, head injury, stroke and an elevated intracranial pressure may produce a state of delirium. Psychoactive drug use and allergic reactions may also produce a state of delirium. Alcohol and tranquilizer withdrawal are two of the more common causes of delirium.
A simple test for delirium is to ask the person to repeat numbers of increasing length. The ability to repeat five digits accurately generally indicates functional immediate attention. A limit of four digits is borderline functional, and these individuals often manifest problems with independent living. A person suffering with a delirium is usually unable to repeat more than two digits before their attention shifts. Commonly, the examiner will be unable to teach the simple rules for the digit repetition task. The delirium renders the assessment of higher order cognitive functions impossible, since the person is unable to focus on the task instructions sufficiently.
Managing a person suffering with a delirium is best accomplished with a smile. Since their attention is too impoverished to comprehend well, the patient will tend to focus on the examiner’s facial expression. Gentle physical guidance is almost always required, secondary to the poor aural comprehension. The main task of the caregiver is to protect the person from accidental harm until medical services can intervene. It is not suggested to wait for the delirium to pass, since there may be increasing organic damage without the appropriate treatment for the underlying condition. Even if the caregiver knows that severe dehydration if causing the delirium, convincing the person to drink voluntarily is nearly impossible. If a person was able to understand the caregiver’s concern and act accordingly, this would be proof enough that the person is not in a state of delirium.
No matter how skilled the caregiver, delirium presents an emergency that requires coordinated medical care. A highly skilled caregiver is apt to know their limitations and seek timely medical intervention. Less skilled caregivers may wait for the condition to pass. Even worse, the caregiver may perceive the patient’s delirium as a personal commentary on their skill as a caregiver. Be a skilled caregiver and seek medical intervention as soon as possible.