Responding to Hallucinations brought by Dementia Skip to content

Hallucinations in Dementia

Published: Dec 29, 2022. Last Updated: Jan 6, 2023.

Imagine a loved one who is no longer able to recognize familiar faces, remember past events, or even communicate their basic needs. This is the reality for many people with dementia, a degenerative brain disorder that affects millions of individuals and their families each year.

Hallucination is a common symptom of dementia and can be distressing for both the person with dementia and their caregivers. It refers to sensory experiences that occur without an external stimulus, such as seeing or hearing things that are not really there. They can be caused by a variety of factors, including changes in the brain, medications, or underlying medical conditions.

By understanding the symptom of dementia and knowing how to respond, caregivers can play a vital role in helping their loved ones cope.

Causes of Hallucinations in Dementia

The root cause of hallucinations in dementia patients is still unknown, but there are several prevailing factors that may contribute to their development. These include:

  • Damage to brain cells: Dementia is typically caused by damage to brain cells, either through the death of brain cells or the destruction of the connections between them. This damage can occur in various parts of the brain, including the areas responsible for processing sensory information. As a result, the brain may misinterpret incoming sensory signals, leading to hallucinations.
  • Side effects of medication: Some medications used to treat dementia, such as certain antipsychotic drugs, can cause hallucinations as a side effect. In these cases, the hallucinations may be caused by the medication itself, rather than the underlying dementia.
  • Changes in brain chemistry: Dementia can also cause changes in brain chemistry, including imbalances in neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. These changes can affect the way the brain processes sensory information, leading to hallucinations.

Types of Hallucinations in Dementia

Hallucinations can take many forms. Some of the most common types of hallucinations experienced by those with dementia include:

  • Visual hallucinations: Seeing things that are not there, such as animals, people, or objects. These hallucinations may be vivid and realistic, or they may be distorted or blurry.
  • Auditory hallucinations: Hearing voices or sounds that are not there, such as music, laughter, or voices speaking to them. These hallucinations may be threatening or comforting, and they may be difficult for the person to distinguish from reality.
  • Olfactory hallucinations: Smelling things that are not there, such as perfumes, flowers, or burning smells. These hallucinations may be pleasant or unpleasant, and they may be difficult to ignore.
  • Gustatory hallucinations: Tasting things that are not there, such as food, beverages, or bitter or sour flavors.
  • Somatic hallucinations: Feeling sensations that are not there, such as insects crawling on the skin, or body parts that are distorted or missing. These hallucinations may be painful or pleasurable, and they may cause the person to scratch or rub their skin or to try to remove imaginary objects from their body.

As the brain cells in a person with dementia continue to deteriorate, they may experience a wide range of symptoms, including hallucinations. While hallucinations are not necessarily a direct result of the severity of dementia, research has shown that they are more common in people with advanced stages of the disease.

For example, a study published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia[1] found that among a group of older adults with dementia, those with more severe cognitive impairment were more likely to experience hallucinations. The study also found that people with hallucinations were more likely to have behavioral and psychological symptoms, such as agitation or aggression, compared to those who did not have hallucinations.

Further research is needed to better understand the relationship between dementia severity and hallucinations, including how these experiences may be related to changes in brain function or other factors. In addition, further study could help develop interventions that minimize the impact of hallucinations on patients’ lives. In the meantime, it is important for family members and caregivers to be aware of the potential link between dementia severity and hallucinations, as well as the best practices for managing them.

How to Respond to Hallucinations in Dementia

One effective way to respond to hallucinations is to do your best not to argue with the person or try to convince them that the hallucination is not real. This can often make the situation worse and cause the person to become agitated or upset. Instead, try to redirect their attention to something else by engaging them in a familiar activity or conversation. Bright lights and loud noises can often trigger hallucinations, so it’s important to remove any possible sources of these sensations from the environment. It may also be helpful to provide them with a familiar object or item that can help them feel more grounded and secure.

The key to responding to hallucinations in dementia is to approach the situation with compassion and understanding. Stay calm and reassure them that they are safe and in a familiar environment. If they are agitated, it may help to take them on a walk or engage in activities that can help distract them from the hallucination. Seek help from a medical professional if the hallucinations become particularly severe or disruptive.

Role of Caregivers in Managing Hallucinations in Dementia

Caregivers play a vital role in managing hallucinations in dementia patients. Some of the key roles of caregivers in this regard include:

Observation and documentation

Caregivers can help to identify patterns in the person's hallucinations, including when they occur, how often, and what triggers them. This information can be helpful in determining the cause of the hallucinations and developing strategies to manage them.

Team up with healthcare professionals

Caregivers can work with the person's healthcare team to discuss the hallucinations and any potential underlying causes, such as medication side effects or underlying medical conditions.

Safe environment

Caregivers can help to identify and address any potential triggers for hallucinations, such as changes in the environment, overstimulation, or discomfort. They can also take steps to create a safe and supportive environment for the person with dementia, including removing potential hazards and providing a calm and reassuring presence.

Reassurance and support

Caregivers can provide emotional support and reassurance to the person with dementia, helping them to feel safe and understood.

When to Seek Medical Help

If you are seeing hallucinations in someone with dementia, it is important to speak with a doctor, a geriatrician, or a mental health professional as soon as possible. These professionals will be able to assess the person with dementia and provide an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan. Hallucinations can sometimes be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as a urinary tract infection or diabetes, so it is important to seek medical help in order to rule out any potential physical causes.

Additionally, changes in behavior or character may signify the need for medical assistance. Withdrawing or becoming anxious, as well as displaying aggressive or violent tendencies are all warning signs that indicate outside help is necessary to manage the person with dementia using the most appropriate approach and treatment.



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About the Author

Ericka Nicolas

Writer & Researcher

Elder Guide LLC

Ericka Nicolas began her career in the banking industry where she learned the importance of being detail-oriented and well-organized, both of which she applies to her current work as a writer and proofreader. With her vast experience in writing, Ericka is able to produce well-researched and engaging content that appeals to Elderguide's target audience. She was able to provide readers with valuable insights on a variety of topics and ensures that all the information she provides is accurate and up-to-date. She takes the time to carefully study each topic given to her, which allows her to produce truly informative articles. Ericka's passion for writing and her dedication to producing quality content gave way to her goal of helping our readers navigate the complex world of senior living and make informed decisions about their future. Aside from her work at Elderguide, Ericka enjoys spending time with her newly-married husband and their dog, Yari. She loves cooking, traveling, and exploring new restaurants in her spare time.