D'Arcy Little, MD, CCFP
Director of Medical Education,
York Community Services, Toronto, ON.
The nurses inform you that the elderly woman in Bed 140-B is agitated, and is complaining that a ghost-like man has been frightening her in her room at night. She is recovering from hip surgery that took place the day before yesterday. When you examine her in the morning, she is drowsy. Later that afternoon she is awake but has difficulty attending to your questions. You begin a work-up for postoperative delirium.
At one time or another, all physicians have faced the challenge of treating a delirious elderly patient in hospital. Delirium is a common, serious, yet potentially preventable cause of morbidity and mortality that primarily affects the elderly and is very common in the elderly post-surgical patient.1-3 The condition is characterized by a disturbance of consciousness and a change in cognition that develops over a short period of time and tends to have a fluctuating course over the day. It is caused by the direct physiological consequences of a general medical condition (See Table 1).2,4 The following article will review the epidemiology and etiology of delirium with a view to presenting an approach to the prevention of postoperative delirium in the elderly surgical patient.