There are some aspects of aging that can be extremely disorienting for both the senior and their caregiver. Hallucation, for example, is something that requires caregivers to be prepared and knowledgeable. Simply put, hallucinations cause a person to see or hear something that is not real. These auditory and visual perceptions can happen for a variety of reasons and they take place when the person is conscious. This can make hallucinations scary for both caregiver and the person cared for. The senior can become agitated and very confused, so it is important to pay close attention to them. That is why this article aims to provide you with all of the necessary information in case your elderly loved one experiences hallucinations.
Common causes of hallucination in the elderly
Without a medical professional, hallucinations can be difficult – next to impossible – to diagnose. Caregivers may even question whether or not the senior is actually hallucinating. This is why it is vital to reach out to your health team and schedule an appointment. This way you can make sure that there is not a larger, underlying medical problem and can rule out psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia or depression.
Other than these major issues, hallucinations can also be caused by dehydration, epilepsy, brain cancer, sleep deprivation, hearing or vision loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, drug or alcohol dependency, liver or kidney failure, Charles Bonnet syndrome or medication.
Symptoms of hallucinations
In order to successfully deal with hallucinations, caregivers have to notice that there is a problem in the first place. There are some major symptoms that you should look out for if you are caring for an elserly loved one. These symptoms include anxiety, confusion and delusions, speech difficulties, heightened sense of awareness, drastic changes in mood or behavior, withdrawal from friends and family, reduced sense of judgment, insomnia and mentioning individuals or things that are not there.
If you happen to notice these symptoms, then it is important to reach out to a doctor and find out the root cause of the hallucinations. By finding the underlying cause, you can then treat the hallucinations. If the cause is Charles Bonnet Syndrome, for example, then bringing more light and brightness into the patient’s home may help. However, even if the root cause cannot be found, medication may be the way to go. Antidepressants or medication to treat anxiety can be helpful.
Other ways to combat hallucinations can include making sure that the senior gets a lot of rest and has time to relax. Overall, it is possible to get rid of these visions or voices, as long as you contact a physician and begin treatment right away. While you do this, it is important that you do not leave your elderly loved one alone. This is because if they are experiencing hallucinations, then they will be very disoriented and disturbed.
Dementia is a leading cause for hallucinations in elderly
When seniors experience hallucinations, it is often because they are battling dementia – a disease that changes the brain and can lead to seeing, hearing or even feeling, tasting and smelling things that are not there. Dementia distorts the brain and so it can cause seniors to misinterpret their senses.
When this happens, it is important for caregivers to remember that no matter how fake you believe the visions or voices are, they are very real to the senior. Nothing you say will convince them otherwise. So, make sure that you validate your loved one’s feelings first. You should respond to their complaints as kindly as possible and try to make them feel safe.
These visions can be especially common in patients with Lewy Body and Parkinson’s dementia. Fortunately, they are not always scary. Sometimes hallucinations will simply include ordinary people, objects or situations. They can even be happy or pleasant.
Understanding the differences between hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia
Before you respond to the hallucinations, it is important that you understand what differentiates hallucinations from delusions and paranoia. These three phenomena are not a natural aspect of aging and they are all very different from each other.
Unlike hallucinations, delusions are not visions. They are more false beliefs that the senior will not let go of. Seniors sometimes accuse caregivers of stealing, for example. That is an example of being delusional. Paranoia is similar in the way that it can manifest in the senior being overtly suspicious. Both of these often lead to the senior becoming hostile or frustrated.
So, when you attempt to cope with hallucinations, make sure that you are not dealing with paranoia or delusions first. You can do this by consulting a doctor.
Ways to respond when someone is experiencing hallucinations
If you are caring for someone who is experiencing hallucinations, there are a couple of things you can do when responding.
Think about whether or not you need to respond at all
At times, for example when the senior is having pleasant or happy hallucinations, it may be fine to simply leave them alone so as to not call attention to it. In cases like this, it may be easier and safer to simply accept that hallucinations are a symptom of dementia or aging and leave it be unless they become scary or harmful. However, if the hallucinations are upsetting or making your senior feel unsafe, then it is important to respond with one of the strategies below.
Remain calm and do not attempt to convince them that they are wrong
When your elderly loved one tells you that they are seeing/feeling something, they are saying so earnestly and that hallucination is very real to them. So, make sure that you do not unnerve or contradict them. Contradicting them or arguing will not work and can instead, make the senior feel unsafe because they will realize that you do not believe them.
Instead, approach them calmly and if possible, ask them to tell you exactly what they are hallucinating. If you listen carefully and make out what they are seeing or hearing, you can get a better sense of whether or not the hallucinations are an emergency or not.
Tell them you trust that they are not lying
Along with avoiding contradictions or arguments, be careful when you talk to the senior about their experience. Do not dismiss their hallucinations or tell them that they are being silly. Instead, it may be helpful to let them speak with you about what they are experiencing. If you take your senior seriously and validate their concerns, then you will create a more secure environment for them.
Instead of focusing on the senior’s hallucination, maybe you can respond to how they are feeling about it instead. If your loved one is scared, try to make them feel safe. If they are happy, then try to be happy with them. Tell them you understand why they feel scared or worried. Be supportive and ask them how you can help, if they come to you for assistance.
Make your elderly loved one’s environment feel safer
There are certain objects or aspects of the senior’s environment that can make them have hallucinations. These can include background noises or too much visual stimulation. Removing these types of triggers can help the senior feel safer instantly! You could try turning off the TV or radio, opening the blinds, removing any mirrors that could be causing fear or confusion.
Reassure the senior and simplify their situation
When seniors have hallucinations, they can get very confused and disoriented. This means that trying to explain to them what is happening in a complex way will only make the situation worse. Instead, simplify the way that you speak. Tell the senior not to worry, reassure them that you will protect them and keep them safe. Physical comfort can also be helpful. Hugging your loved one or gently patting their arm or shoulder can reassure them greatly. If your loved one feels that they can speak to you about this issue, it will be a good distraction.
Determine if there is a pattern
If you cannot figure out what is triggering your senior’s hallucinations – especially when they are frequent, it may be best to track their behavior and try to determine a pattern. For example, you can keep notes on the person’s routine and see when hallucinations happen throughout the day. Maybe it’s happening after certain meals or physical activity. Maybe they have made some minor change in their routine and it’s disorienting. Either way, keeping notes can help find you a solution.
Redirect the senior’s attention
You can also distract your loved one from their hallucination. This can be an effective technique in dealing with the issue. Instead of concentrating on the hallucination or making them talk about it, you can refocus them on another activity. Whether it is watching their favorite movie, reading a book they like, going through old photo albums, eating their favorite meals or taking a walk outside, all that matters is that the senior enjoys it.
Ask for support
Caring for someone with a terminal illness or someone who is advanced in age is not easy in general. So, if we add hallucinations to the burden, it can become overwhelming. This is where having a support system can be extremely helpful, convincing you that you are not alone. Caregiver support groups may be a great option for finding assistance. These groups can be online or in-person and they can provide you with a lot of helpful tips and solidarity.
Reach out to a medical professional
If you do not understand why the hallucinations are happening or are afraid that there may be an underlying cause to them that has still not been diagnosed, then it is a good idea to speak with your elderly loved one’s doctor. A medical professional will give you guidance on how to respond and can help you formulate the best strategy for reducing and eliminating hallucinations.
It is especially important to contact your doctor if you believe that the hallucinations are being caused by a new medication your senior is taking. The doctor will want to monitor the side effect or modify the prescription. In addition, if the hallucination is putting the senior in danger, forcing them to behave in a way that may be physically or emotionally harmful for them, the physician may want to introduce approaches that include drug treatment.
Overall, we hope that this article has helped you understand hallucinations and prepared you for dealing with them if the need arises.
- Hallucinations in Older Adults: A Practical Review, Johanna C. Badcock et al., https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/46/6/1382/5868626
- Visual Hallucinations in Long-Term Care, Cynthia P. Roever et al., https://www.managedhealthcareconnect.com/index.php/articles/visual-hallucinations-long-term-care