Hallucinations in the Elderly | Overview

Last Updated: 08.07.20

 

Taking care of the elderly is often not an easy task. We’ve discussed one way to take care of wheelchair-bound older people in our recent post, but today we’ll be focusing on those with hallucinations caused by all sorts of disorders that come with old age. We’re going to try to make it as easy as humanly possible for you since taking your loved ones to a nursing home isn’t always an option.

 

Signs that your loved ones might be hallucinating

As your parents or grandparents get older, their chances of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s syndrome, and other similar brain-related disorders increase dramatically. While old age isn’t necessarily a guarantee that they’ll develop such conditions, it is better to be prepared than to be taken by surprise.

If you notice any sudden changes to their personality, you might want to have a talk with them. Symptoms of hallucination can include drastic changes in the patient’s behavior or mood, extreme anxiety or paranoia, a reduced sense of judgment, delusions, insomnia, difficulty in speech, isolation and, the most obvious one, talking about things or people that aren’t there.

What to do in cases like these

The first step you should take is to keep calm. Although it may be difficult to live with the thought that your loved ones might have dementia, it is important to maintain a calming environment. Being distressed will only make their condition a lot worse. It’s also worth noting the type of hallucinations they have. Is the hallucination bothering them or are they calm or even happy?

If they seem calm or happy, it’s better not to call their attention to it. Pointing it out will only confuse or outright frighten them. Being calm is absolutely crucial. If the hallucinations seem to unnerve them, then step in and try to reassure them that everything’s fine. Provide as much comfort and support as you can and then call a specialist without them knowing.

Keep in mind that it is very important not to contradict them. If your loved ones have dementia, then what they’re seeing appears very real to them and you’ll only upset them if you tell them otherwise. Knowing that you don’t believe them will most likely agitate them further. Also, note that dementia affects their ability to speak correctly. They might say “rabbits” but refer to cats.

Don’t brush away what they’re saying, no matter how silly it might sound. Instead, take them seriously and provide reassurance to keep them calm. Try to respond to their feelings rather than to the hallucinations themselves. 

There’s no need to pretend that you’re seeing the same things that they are. Rather, respond with something like “I can see you’re upset. How can I help?”. If they insist on telling you about what they’re seeing, you could ask them what you can do to help them feel safe. Hug them, reassure them, and be there for them if they’re crying.

 

Remove things that might upset them

Dementia patients can often have hallucinations triggered by things in their nearby environment. Their brain interprets what they see and hear differently. Check their room or even the entire house for things that could start a hallucinogenic episode. If they seem to be disturbed by what’s on TV, change the channel or turn it off completely.

If they have auditory hallucinations, check for environmental sounds that might trigger them. Turn off the radio or other appliances that are making noise. If the noise comes from outside, then shut the window so that less sound comes into your home. If they’re triggered by shadows in a corner, turn on the lights so that the shadows disappear.

If you have shiny floors, they might see reflections in them and start thinking that there are strangers in the house or that demons and ghosts have entered the room. Make sure to cover those floors with generic carpets that don’t have patterns on them. It’s also a good idea to cover up mirrors or remove them completely, as they provide a big source of fear and confusion.

 

Try to find out if there’s a pattern

Sometimes it is unclear what triggers their hallucinations. If you’ve already taken the previous necessary steps but they still seem uneasy and if they talk about things that aren’t there, then you might’ve missed something. Keep a close eye on their routine. Check up on them frequently and try to figure out what they’re doing throughout their day.

It’s recommended to keep notes in a journal. Write down the time of day and what they were doing when they started hallucinating. See if their hallucinations happen before or after they eat or if they’re related to certain activities, such as going to the bathroom. Do this for a couple of days and you might eventually figure out what it is exactly that’s triggering their condition. 

 

Try keeping them distracted

Besides reassuring them, you can also make their life easier by engaging in activities that they enjoy. When they’re hallucinating, you can comfort them and then ask if they want to help you do the dishes, clean the house, play bridge or chess, or anything other that can keep their mind busy and distracted from the thing that’s triggering them.

If they’re hearing things, you can keep them distracted by having a conversation with them and focusing their attention on you. It’s much harder for them to hear things that are not there when you keep talking. This way, you’ll decrease the time it takes for their hallucinations to go away.

And if their hallucinations are visual and you can’t seem to convince them to do any activity, focus on getting to their eye level and making direct eye contact with them. This helps distract them from whatever’s making them hallucinate and will also decrease the time it usually takes for their hallucinations to vanish.

Get them to a doctor

Although dementia and other similar afflictions can’t be cured, your doctor can make an assessment to find out if something in their routine is causing hallucinations to appear more often. There are numerous factors that you can’t control directly, so giving them medical help should be one of the top priorities.

Some of the most common causes of hallucinations include dehydration, urinary tract infections, head injuries, brain cancer, drug or alcohol abuse, liver or kidney failure and much more. If your doctor can find any of these causes and manages to treat them properly, then hallucinogenic episodes should also be reduced.

Moreover, inform your doctor if your loved one has started taking new medication recently or if they have been taking certain medication for long. These can also stir up people who have hallucinations, and renouncing them completely or replacing them with something else might just make the situation much easier to handle.

In cases where their hallucinations are so powerful that they might hurt you or themselves, restrain them and take them to the doctor immediately. If you’ve kept a journal that describes their symptoms, triggers, and changes in intensity, this will help out your doctor immensely. So try to remember as many details as possible and tell the doctor everything.

 

Find support for yourself

It’s hard to cope with the fact that your parents or grandparents have dementia or other similar afflictions. It’s heartbreaking, actually. So to make things slightly easier for you, search for a support group in your area. You are not the only one dealing with such heartbreak. There are other people who are going through the same thing as you and you can comfort each other.

It’s also a good idea to seek out a therapist. Psychologists and psychiatrists have studied human behavior and thinking for years on end, and oftentimes their advice is crucial to helping you cope with all the stress and despair. Sharing your experience with others can make your life much easier. 

And although no one can replace a parent or grandparent, taking your mind off them once in a while is necessary. You’re human and you need some rest. Leave them in the care of a professional caregiver whenever you have the possibility and go on a vacation. Do something new and refreshing that helps put your mind at ease and recover some energy.

Remember, you are not alone even if at times it might seem so. Don’t ever be ashamed to reach out for help. It’s completely natural and healthy.

 

 

Ioana Moldovan

Ioana is a lifelong learner with extensive work experience in the public health field. She is passionate about science and psychology and is constantly curious about how these can change people’s lives for the better. Her goal is to gather valuable information that can help her readers.

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