The first time Mother suffered an attack of acute delirium I thought she was playing up. It was a month or more ago. She was in the sitting room watching Good Morning Britain on the TV and I was in the kitchen loading a large sausage sandwich into my mouth.
I could barely hear her calling with all the churning and jawing noises as the first bite of sandwich did a whirlwind tour of my molars. She’s probably just forgotten how to use the TV remote again, I thought. I’ve got a minute or two before she starts cursing more loudly. I’ll finish the sandwich and then pop through.
There was another noise from the sitting room. I put the sausage sandwich in my mouth, like a harmonica, and walked into the sitting room. I was preparing myself to listen to a tirade from Mother for not having come sooner or get a rehash of the lecture she gave my son the last time she lost the TV remote. The one in which she says TV’s were better for you in the Fifties and Sixties because you had to walk over to them and press a button on the set if you wanted to switch channels.
‘You mean you had to get up off the sofa to choose what you wanted to watch?’ asked my son, incredulous.
‘Yes,’ said Granny. ‘You had to make a choice and stick with it. Or get off your behind and change it. There was none of this channel surfing nonsense in those days.’
But, instead of a lecture, I found Mother shaking uncontrollably at the ironing board. She was holding her hands out in front of her and they were trembling uncontrollably. She was staring at them as though they were not part of her.
‘What’s happening to me,’ she asked, without anxiety, but very softly.
Her feet and legs were jittering up and down, uncontrollably, and her head shook gently. It looked like she was in the process of being possessed.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Why can’t I stop shaking?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
At first, I thought this must be a heart attack or a stroke. But she was still alive and we were talking to each other, so it couldn’t be that bad I thought. Fatal, that is. Even though she was talking feverishly and her eyelids blinked open and shut frantically at some moments, I felt myself calm down.
I resisted the urge to call 999 and spoke to NHS 111, who asked if she was taking antibiotic pills for a urinary tract infection. These infections are common in old people but not lethal by themselves. I didn’t know if she was or wasn’t but it was clear when I dug out the box from her pill tray that she hadn’t been taking the tablets at all. After a little persuasion, I managed to get take the antibiotics and got her into bed. She fell asleep. I went downstairs and slumped onto the sofa.
‘Can it happen, again,’ asked my wife, later that evening.
‘I hope not. It’s not a great experience,’ I said.
If you’re concerned about a parent who might have delirium, please listen to our podcast with old age psychiatrist Dr Alex Bailey, who explains what to look out for, and what remedies there are.
You can read more about Urinary Tract Infections here.