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Delirium, Dementia & Depression

Providing nursing care to patients with one of the 'three D's' can confuse caregivers as many also have one or both of the other conditions.

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The three D's - delirium, dementia and depression - are disorders often confused by caregivers as they are complex and patients can afflicted with more than one of the conditions at the same time.

Although often coinciding, the three Ds are entirely separate conditions.

Delirium is an acute but reversible state of confusion occurring in up to 50 percent of older post-surgical patients.1

Dementia is an irreversible decline of mental abilities which affects 5-10 percent of the U.S. population over age 65, with incidence doubling every 5 year after 65.2

Depression is a mood disorder which affects 16 percent population, although it often is unrecognized.2

Similarities & Differences

Because delirium and dementia are cognitive disorders with impaired memory, thinking and reasoning they can have devastating effects on the ability to function in daily life.3

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3Ds: Delirium Dementia & Depression

These diagnoses often overlay with unclear presentations.

Depression meanwhile, can also affect concentration and judgment, and so symptoms can mimic a cognitive disorder 4 Dementia is differentiated from pseudodementia (depression) in the elderly. Pseudodementia is defined as depression with cognitive impairments (

See Table 1 for outlines some of the similarities and differences of these diagnoses.2

Careful history taking and evaluation of the onset is the key.

Acute and worsening symptoms at night in an otherwise cognitively healthy person may be indicative of delirium; whereas dementia is usually insidious; depression may be worse in morning after the person has had difficulty sleeping.

  • Medical evaluation: brain imaging; lab work to evaluate metabolic; endocrine; infectious processes; or toxicology.
  • Mental status exam and neuropsychological testing can evaluate cognition and determine insidious problems one may not be aware of.

Some examples of Psychological Assessment Tools for these disorders are outlined in Table 2.

TABLE 2: Tools for Diagnosing the Three Ds2

Delirium Tools

Dementia Tools

Depression Tools

Delirium Symptom Interview

Global Deterioration Scale

Geriatric Depression Scale

NEECHAM Confusion Scale

Alzheimer Assessment Scale

Beck Depression Inventory

Diagnosing Delirium

A 78-year-old woman who was awake, alert and oriented becomes confused, combative and paranoid following hip surgery. She is frightened, agitated, fighting with the staff and attempting to get OOB. As her nurse, you are concerned for her safety and start to wonder if she has underlying dementia? But all of the signs and symptoms point to delirium, so you notify the physician and struggle to keep her safe all night. In the morning, she is much more coherent - when the physicians make his rounds, of course.

Delirium is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed and commonly mistaken for dementia, depression, mania, an acute schizophrenic reaction, or part of old age.

The prevalence of delirium ranges from 10-30 percent in med/surg patients, and among elderly inpatients 50 percent.

The physiologic causes of delirium are often: infection: hypoxia; hypoglycemia; hyperthermia. Hyperthermia can happen easily in an elderly person gardening in the summer out in the sun as elderly have a decreased thirst mechanism and can quickly have a change in mental status with dehydration and hyperthermia.

Patients are often admitted to hospitals due to a change in mental status as a result of a UTI or pneumonia. Of course, cerebral meningitis, encephalitis and syphilis can also cause delirium.

Drug related delirium is seen with: substance intoxication or withdrawal; anticholinergic use; use of high doses of prednisone which can cause prednisone psychosis. Similarly, one can have reactions to anesthesia or prescribed medicines.3

Delirium is a disturbance in consciousness; develops rapidly; change in cognition; illusions; visual hallucinations sleep and sensory disturbances. The causes of delirium are physiologic (metabolic), infection or drug related.3  However, many cases of delirium have an unknown cause. Sensory or sleep deprivation and change of environment can result in delirium.3

Some diagnostic features of delirium are:

  • limited attention span;
  • disorientation to time and place (not person);
  • fluctuating levels of awareness ranging from alertness to stupor;
  • global cerebral dysfunction;
  • confusion; and
  • short-term memory loss.

All of these can be confused with dementia, while delusions; illusions or hallucinations are often misdiagnosed as acute psychosis.

At times, the two diagnoses of delirium and dementia co-exist. However, the symptoms of delirium are often short lived (once the cause is successfully treated), so dementia will remain after the delirium has cleared.

Recognizing Dementia

An 83-year-old man who is admitted for cellulitis has difficulty remembering why he is in the hospital, and is getting increasingly anxious. As it gets later in the day, he develops a fever and starts to get increasingly confused and agitated. Now, the patient has signs and symptoms of both delirium and dementia resulting in some confusion among clinical staff.

The most common disease associated with dementia is Alzheimers, which accounts for 60-80 percent of cases.4

The most prominent feature of dementia is memory impairment and the patient is fully alert, whereas, in delirium this is often impaired.

Along with memory deficits, there are difficulties with: problem solving; judgment; ability to sequence events.

As the disease progresses, the patient has increased difficulties with the 4 A's: amnesia; aphasia; apraxia and agnosia. Amnesia-retrograde; aphasia- expressive and receptive; apraxia- ability to replicate motor activities; agnosia- ability to recognize.4

There are 7 stages culminating in severe decline, which typically happens over 8-20 years.4

A nursing assessment may also reveal:

  • poor judgment;
  • disorientation;
  • illusions and confusion;
  • confabulation, i.e., tells stories to fill in memory gaps;
  • labile; quarrelsome; angry;
  • depressed and withdrawn; and
  • poor memory that continues to decline.

Dealing With Depression

A 69-year-old male is admitted to the hospital for asthma. He has a poor appetite and memory, sad mood and affect, is reluctant to perform self- care and has reversed sleep-wake cycles.

Nursing interventions for depression include providing safety; promoting a therapeutic relationship; promote and/or assist with ADL's; communicate therapeutically; evaluate effectiveness of medications; teaching of illness and medications.

Assess patients diagnosed with depression for suicidal ideation and plan of action. Contract with the patient to inform staff when feeling suicidal and/or place on suicide watch.

It is important to note that when patient feels better, may be at increased risk for suicide, because they have more energy and may be more at peace having made a decision to end their life.

Assessment for depression can include:

  • General Appearance: sad, psychomotor retardation or agitation.
  • Mood & Affect: sad, hopeless, helpless, inability to feel pleasure, low-self esteem.
  • Thought Process & Content: slowed thinking; negative/pessimistic; makes self-deprecating remarks; ruminates; may have thoughts of dying/committing suicide
  • Sensorium and Intellectual Process: may/may not be oriented, memory impairment, difficulty concentrating.
  • Judgment & Insight: impaired judgment and difficulty with decision making, insight may/may not be impaired.
  • Physiologic & Self-Care: weight loss; sleep disturbance; loss of interest in sex; neglect personal hygiene; may have many physical complaints-pain, mobility problems.
  • Risk for suicide: :anxiety; ineffective coping; hopelessness; impaired social interaction

Universal Nursing Interventions

The following interventions are intended to maintain safety while decreasing anxiety in patients with one or more of the three Ds:

  • Use clear, concrete language, incorporate orientation cues waits response, repeat same words; limit choices.
  • Monitor food intake, F and E balance; bowel/bladder functions; safe, well lit environment with clock, calendar.
  • Promote relaxation, ambulation, assess for falls and implement fall protocol and constant observation when necessary.
  • Avoid contradicting, arguing, calmly correct misperceptions.
  • Educate patients and families on diet, medications, prognoses and give support.
  • Administer antipsychotics, usually Haldol 0.5 mg to 1 mg. Benzodiazepines should be avoided as they may worsen delirium, but are needed for alcohol withdrawal often associate with depression. Remember, patients' with impaired liver or kidney function have decreased ability to metabolize and or excrete medications.


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Complex Nursing Care

The disorders of delirium, dementia and depression are often misdiagnosed and at times patients present with two of the disorders and it is difficult for the nurse to evaluate and intervene in their care.

However, by developing an understanding of the separate but often interrelated disorders with assist the nurse in caring for this population.

References for this article can be accessed here.

Victoria Siegel is associate professor at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, NY.

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