Sometimes confusion can be a temporary phase and will pass. Sometimes confusion is long term and is due to a permanent condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, stroke or brain injury.
What is confusion?
Confusion is a term that refers to a decline in cognitive ability, that is, our ability to think, learn and understand. A decline in cognitive ability is often associated with dementia. Symptoms of confusion include problems with short-term memory, difficulty carrying out tasks, poor attention span, unclear speech and difficulty in following a conversation.
If someone you know has confusion, there are ways you can help them.
- If the person forgets who you are, always introduce yourself to them, no matter how well or how long you have known them. This can be distressing for you as a carer but will help the person you are looking after.
- Talk to the person about current events.
- Explain who other people are: 'This is your son, Jack'.
- Help to orientate the person using daily events. For example, instead of saying 'He will be here at 2 o'clock, say 'He will be here after lunch'.
Tips for activities
Try to encourage peaceful and quiet activities that stimulate the mind, such as painting, playing cards or watching television and completing puzzles or quizzes. Encourage the person to remain physically active by walking and doing gentle exercise if possible, but also make sure they get plenty of rest and relaxation. Confusion can be worse at night if the person is overtired.
Personal care and diet
Make sure the person is treated with dignity and respect if they need additional help with going to the toilet or with personal hygiene tasks such as washing or getting dressed.
You can also help to ensure the person is eating nutritious and healthy meals, avoiding too much sugar, salt and processed foods.
Tips for their environment
- Try to have a calm and peaceful environment where the person is not constantly distracted by noise or too much activity going on around them. The temperature of the room should ideally be around 21-23°C.
- Keep lighting at a moderate level, not too bright and not too dull. Night time lighting may be needed to prevent falls or trips if the person is in unfamiliar surroundings.
- Place a clock and a calendar near the person so they are reminded of the date and time.
- Have a photograph album showing events from the person’s life can help.
- If a person needs care away from their home and familiar surroundings, it can help to have objects that are familiar to them, for example a favourite blanket and photographs.
A person who is confused may be at risk from wandering — for example looking for a toilet or trying to find their way home.
Extra care should be taken to ensure that people who may have memory problems, particularly older people, are monitored to reduce the risk of wandering. This may include moving toilet facilities closer to the person or creating distractions to avoid boredom.
If you encounter someone who is wandering, be aware that they may be frightened, unable to communicate properly, and may have health problems that affect their understanding and their movement.
It is important to calm them down and show them they can trust you. Introduce yourself, offer help and talk to them respectfully. Try to understand their reason for wandering and see if you can contact family members or friends. Check they aren’t injured, hungry, thirsty or need the toilet.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your helping someone with longer term confusion, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: September 2019