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Delirium is a state of severe confusion. It often occurs in people living with dementia, but it can be hard to spot. That’s because the symptoms of delirium and dementia are similar.

Delirium can come on quickly. It can result in the person seeming more confused than usual. It may look like:

  • lack of attention or focus
  • short-term memory loss
  • rambling or incoherent speech
  • new difficulties with perception
  • restlessness, irritability, agitation and aggression
  • hallucinations and delusions
  • quietness, drowsiness and lethargy
  • disruptions in normal sleeping and eating patterns.

Delirium can be distressing for you, your family and the person with dementia. These are some possible causes to watch out for, and some ways to respond.

Causes of delirium

No-one knows exactly why delirium happens, but it can be brought on by:

  • severe illness
  • constipation
  • dehydration
  • infection
  • pain
  • drug effect or withdrawal (alcohol and sedative drugs).

If the person has experienced delirium in the past, they are more likely to get it again.

What you can do

Visit their doctor as soon as you suspect something might be wrong. Discuss any medications, and any changes to their behaviour, health or environment. Early treatment goes a long way in helping the person to recover.

You can also help to ease the person’s distress by:

  • speaking slowly and calmly
  • reminding the person where they are, and what day it is
  • encouraging friends and family to visit the person
  • encouraging them to eat and drink
  • playing relaxing music or using other strategies to help them sleep
  • creating a safe and soothing environment free from too much noise, stimulation and the potential for falls
  • making sure they have their glasses or hearing aids if they use them.

Over the longer term, support the person to remain active. Physical and occupational therapy may help.

It’s okay to take care of your own health and happiness. If you're struggling as someone who cares for a person with dementia, contact the free, confidential National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500, any time of the day or night, for information, advice and support.

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Last updated
15 December 2023