Now some local nurses are learning how to recognize the problem and help older patients get through it.
"This is a color board, the different colors and the slots. We had one woman who really enjoyed this, " explains Nurse Jeanne Halpin-Mathis, as she shows various items, used at Mt. Nittany Medical Center to help older patients focus and stay in touch with reality.
She adds, "sudoku puzzles and the word searches. There are patients who are excellent with that, even though they may be confused with other day to day activities."
Halpin-Mathis is a certified NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders) nurse which means she's specially qualified to care for older adults.
It's all part of a five year study at Mt. Nittany. The research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health gives nurses extra training and an electronic medical program to detect delirium and manage it, without medication.
Dr. Donna Fick, Distinguished Professor of Nursing at Penn State University's School of Nursing is the lead investigator. She says, "part of it is empowering them to care more about older adults to be passionate about older adults. "
According to Dr. Fick, shifts include a nurse trained to assess patients for signs of confusion and to figure out possible causes and remedies.
Former geriatric nurse Jane McDowell coordinates the study at Mt. Nittany, Altoona Regional Health System, and Vanderbilt University.
She says, under the program, nurses are "more careful to watch food and hydration status, make sure they have enough to drink, get patients like that out of bed into chairs, walking up and down halls."
Extra efforts are also made to get patients engaged in activities they enjoy, such as working with tools like screw guns and PVC piping.
Nurse Halpin-Mathis says, " we've had patients who've just done amazing things in their lifetime with their hands, whether they were university workers or farmers and they get a lot of comfort just putting things together."
Those involved with the study say patients in the program seem to be more responsive, but it'll be another few years before researchers know how effective it is.