Being diagnosed with dementia can be a frightening and challenging time – not just for the person who is living with the condition, but also for their families, and the symptoms of this progressive condition are many and varied.
One such symptom, most common in the middle or later stages of dementia is hallucinations. These are caused by changes in the brain that can distort or misinterpret the senses and result in the patient seeing, feeling, hearing or tasting something that isn’t there. These symptoms mostly affect those who have Lewy Body or Parkinson’s dementia, although hallucinations can also happen in Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia patients.
While some hallucinations experienced by those who have dementia can be frightening or unsettling, it’s also common for older people who are living with dementia to hallucinate ordinary, everyday things, including people or objects from their past, and it’s important to know that these visions are incredibly real to the person who is experiencing it.
How to help your loved one with hallucinations
If you are caring for a loved one who is living with dementia and is having hallucinations, it can be difficult to know how to react and how to deal with the situation – especially if the hallucination is causing upset or distress.
Care In Kent has put together some top tips for responding to and caring for an older person who is living with dementia and hallucinations.
1. Is The Hallucination Bothering The Dementia Patient?
Some hallucinations experienced by dementia patients can be pleasant, and if your loved one isn’t upset or distressed, your best response is to simply acknowledge that it is a symptom of their illness and not draw negative attention to it.
If your loved one is hallucinating and it is making them do something unsafe or is troubling them, then now would be the time to provide reassurance and support and redirect them to something safe and comforting instead.
2. Do Not Argue With Someone Who Is Having A Dementia-Related Hallucination
A hallucination experienced by someone who is living with dementia will be very real to them, so it’s really important to stay calm and not be tempted to contradict them or argue that what they are seeing or hearing isn’t actually there.
Explaining that it’s just a hallucination simply won’t work because of the damage the dementia has caused to their brain. Using logic could actually make things worse, causing your loved one to become upset, agitated or angry.
Remember that their illness could mean that they have trouble finding the correct words to explain what they are seeing, hearing, or feeling, so even if a person with dementia is calm enough to explain what they are experiencing you’ll have to listen carefully and remain as understanding as possible.
3. Validate The Feelings Of A Person Who Is Hallucinating
If your loved one has dementia and is experiencing hallucinations, it could be easy to brush it off or be dismissive – especially if it’s becoming commonplace or you are busy or stressed. But telling someone who is having a dementia-related hallucination to ‘not be silly’, or tell them that there’s ‘nothing there’, could make them upset.
Let them talk about what they are seeing and respond to them kindly and calmly. Knowing that you are taking them seriously and are providing some reassurance will help them to feel safe and cared for. Focus on responding to their feelings rather than to the hallucination itself – you don’t have to pretend that you can see or hear what they can, just show support and try to relieve any fear they might have, just as if it were a real threat. For example, offer reassurance and understanding during frightening or distressing episodes by letting them know that you can see that they are upset or that you know it is scary for them…something like, ‘You seem worried, what can I do to help you to feel safe?’, shows them that you are validating their feelings and that you want to help.
You can also validate the feelings of a loved one who is living with dementia and hallucinations if the visions are happy ones by telling them that it sounds wonderful and that you are glad they feel happy.
4. Are There Patterns To Dementia-Related Hallucinations?
Frequent hallucinations could be due to a trigger that isn’t obvious, so it’s worth tracking your loved one’s activities in a journal in order to figure out if there is a pattern to these experiences.
Perhaps the hallucinations happen at a certain time of day, after a certain activity, or are triggered by something physical such as being in pain or needing to use the toilet. It could be that a change in routine is causing your loved one to feel confused, and that is triggering the hallucinations. Taking notes when these hallucinatory experiences occur could help you to identify any patterns and help you to avoid situations that could be triggering the hallucinations.
5. Distract Your Loved One From The Hallucination
Switching the focus of a person who is having a hallucination to an activity that they enjoy can be a good way to distract them – especially important if what they are experiencing is causing them distress.
Those who are living with dementia enjoy engaging in tasks that make them feel successful, so perhaps you could ask them to help you with a simple chore like folding towels or pairing socks, or maybe help you with a puzzle. Other good distractions are looking at old photos, taking a walk – either outdoors or indoors, or listening to their favourite music.
Directing your loved one’s attention towards you instead of the hallucination is another good distraction technique. If they are hearing voices, start a conversation with them so that they focus on those words instead, and if they are seeing something that isn’t there, try to make eye contact with them and get them to concentrate on looking at you. This shift of focus could make the hallucination go away, or at least become less intense.
6. Speak To A Doctor If Your Loved One Has Dementia And Is Experiencing Hallucinations
It’s always important to keep your loved one’s doctor informed of any changes in behaviour or symptoms and not to simply chalk everything up to their dementia. While hallucinations in dementia patients aren’t uncommon, it’s not the only medical reason that these can occur. For example, dehydration, UTIs, head injuries, kidney infections, and bladder infections can all cause hallucinations when left untreated, so seeing a GP to find the cause is vital.
Other things that can cause hallucinations include issues with hearing or vision, as well as it being a side effect of some type of medication – so check with a GP if your loved one has recently started taking a new drug.
A dementia diagnosis can feel like the end of the world – for everyone involved…but the challenges you will all face can be made easier by knowing as much as you can about the illness, the possible symptoms, and how you can support and care for your loved one with compassion and understanding.
At Care In Kent, we know that there will be times when as a family you feel overwhelmed, which is why our dedicated team provides a wide variety of home care services designed to lighten the load for those who are caring for an elderly loved one.