Best Practices

The Social Worker’s Role in Delirium Care for Hospitalized Veterans

Social workers can play an important role as part of the health care team in delirium risk identification, prevention, and care.

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Delirium, or the state of mental confusion that may occur with physical or mental illness, is common, morbid, and costly; however, of the diagnosed cases, delirium is mentioned in hospital discharge summaries only 16% to 55% of the time. 1-3

Social workers often coordinate care transitions for hospitalized older veterans. They serve as interdisciplinary team members who communicate with VA medical staff as well as with the patient and family. This position, in addition to their training in communication and advocacy, primes social workers for a role in delirium care and provides the needed support for veterans who experience delirium and their families.


Delirium is a sudden disturbance of attention with reduced awareness of the environment. Because attention is impaired, other changes in cognition are common, including perceptual and thought disturbances. Additionally, delirium includes fluctuations in consciousness over the course of a day. The acute development of these cognitive disturbances is distinct from a preexisting chronic cognitive impairment, such as dementia. Delirium is a direct consequence of underlying medical conditions, such as infections, polypharmacy, dehydration, and surgery. 4

Delirium subtypes all have inattention as a core symptom. In half of the cases, patients are hypoactive and will not awaken easily or participate in daily care plans readily. 4 Hyperactive delirium occurs in a quarter of cases. In the remaining mixed delirium cases patients fluctuate between the 2 states. 4

Delirium is often falsely mistaken for dementia. Although delirium and dementia can present similarly, delirium has a sudden onset, which can alert health care professionals (HCPs) to the likelihood of delirium. Another important distinction is that delirium is typically reversible. Symptom manifestations of delirium may also be confused with depression.

Related: Delirium in the Cardiac ICU

Preventing delirium is important due to its many negative health outcomes. Older adults who develop delirium are more likely to die sooner. In a Canadian study of hospitalized patients aged ≥ 65 years, 41.6% of the delirium cohort and 14.4% of the control group died within 12 months of hospital admission. 5 The death rate predicted by delirium in the Canadian study was comparable to the death rate of those who experience other serious medical conditions, such as sepsis or a heart attack. 6

Those who survive delirium experience other serious outcomes, such as a negative impact on function and cognition and an increase in long-term care placement. 7 Even when the condition resolves quickly, lasting functional impairment may be evident without return to baseline functioning. 8 Hospitalized veterans are generally older, making them susceptible to developing delirium. 9


Delirium can result from multiple medical conditions and develops in up to 50% of patients after general surgery and up to 80% of patients in the intensive care unit. 10,11 From 20% to 40% of hospitalized older adults and from 50% to 89% of patients with preexisting Alzheimer disease may develop delirium. 12-15 The increasing number of aging adults who will be hospitalized may also result in an increased prevalence of delirium. 1,16

Delirium is a result of various predisposing and precipitating factors. 1 Predisposing vulnerabilities are intrinsic to the individual, whereas precipitating external stressors are found in the environment. External stressors may trigger delirium in an individual who is vulnerable due to predisposing risk. The primary risk factors for delirium include dementia, advanced age, sensory impairment, fracture, infection, and dehydration (Table 1). 12


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