What causes hallucinations in the elderly
Health

What causes hallucinations in the elderly?

5 min read

If you have older loved ones, you might be familiar with them experiencing hallucinations.

There are many causes of hallucinations from sensory impairment to advanced dementia symptoms.

Experiencing them can be frightening as well as confusing for the individual and those around them.

This article will cover the causes of hallucinations and how you can support your elderly loved ones through the experience.

Here’s a summary of what we’ll cover:

  • A hallucination is when someone has a false sensory experience and mistakes it for reality.
  • Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies can cause hallucinations, amongst other symptoms.
  • Other cognitive diseases or mental illnesses such as psychosis and paranoia can also be an explanation for hallucinations.
  • Affirming your loved one’s experience and providing comfort can reduce stress and anxiety.
What is a hallucination

What is a hallucination?

Hallucinations are sensory experiences in which a person experiences something that is not real and believes it to be reality.

These imagined realities could be anything from seeing flashing lights, known as simple hallucinations

To more complex scenarios such as seeing people, animals, or situations that aren’t there. 

And the situations could be very realistic (real people and possibilities) or entirely far-fetched or impossible.

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What are the signs of hallucinations in elderly?

In most cases, hallucinations are an unpleasant and confusing thing to experience. 

Someone who is hallucinating is likely to be unsettled, as they can be frightening or strange. 

Regardless of whether it’s the first time this has happened or the hundredth, they can cause agitation and upset for everyone involved. 

So it is important to recognise the signs of someone experiencing hallucinations so that you can respond accordingly.

What causes hallucinations in the elderly?

If your loved one is experiencing hallucinations, don’t jump to conclusions about what causes hallucinations in elderly. 

There are a number of causes of hallucinations in elderly people, from existing mental health conditions to medication.

Mental health factors

A primary cause of hallucinations in elderly people could be due to mental health factors. 

Disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis can cause intense and alarming hallucinations. 

Paranoia is an example of a mental illness that could cause irrational thinking and delusion which could be mistaken for hallucinations. 

It’s important to consider other factors, as misdiagnosing symptoms could put your loved one at further risk.

What causes hallucinations in elderly people

Medication side effects

Medications could also be a possible cause as some produce side effects that have psychotic symptoms. 

Having a mix of medications can also create greater side effects which may lead to paranoia, anxiety, and mental stress. 

If you think a medication causes hallucinations in an elderly loved one, seek advice from their GP.

Sensory impairment

Sensory impairment is when a person’s eyesight, hearing or other sensory receptors are altered. 

As people get older, they may find themselves to be hard of hearing or struggling to see properly. 

It’s important to get eye and hearing tests at regular intervals to rule out any confusion that this could cause. 

If the person has dementia, this could add another layer of sensory confusion that could trigger a hallucination.

Does dementia cause hallucinations

Does dementia cause hallucinations?

If your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, you may be wondering if it causes hallucinations in the elderly. 

In some cases, yes, dementia symptoms can include hallucination as well as delusion and general confusion. 

It is more common in Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies  to experience audio and visual hallucinations. 

This can be very upsetting for loved ones of the person with dementia, as well as frightening for the individual.

What is dementia with Lewy bodies?

Dementia with Lewy bodies is a common type of dementia caused by chunks of protein developing within brain cells. 

The deposits (lewy bodies) can lead to chemical changes in the brain and cause problems with thinking, movement, behaviour, and mood. 

Audio and visual hallucination has also been reported as a symptom, such as seeing, hearing or smelling things that are not there. 

This can also lead to Capgras syndrome, thinking that an imposter has replaced a loved one.

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Is hallucinating a symptom of advanced dementia

Is hallucinating a symptom of advanced dementia?

For people with Alzheimer’s or dementia with Lewy bodies, hallucinating can occur at any stage of the disease. 

This could be as a result of the disease as well as other factors such as changes to routine and sensory impairment. 

However, it is perhaps more common for people with mid and late-stage dementia to experience hallucinations. 

This is due to more severe brain changes but may also relate to sensory difficulties, especially with sight and sound.

How to support someone who is hallucinating

How to support someone who is hallucinating

If you suspect your loved one is currently experiencing hallucinations, there are ways in which you can support them.

It helps to create a calm and safe space is key for them to recover and reconnect with themselves. 

And communicate with them clearly, reminding them of their surroundings, like where they are, and what they are doing presently.

Making sure your loved ones are safe within their surroundings will prevent them from harming themselves.

What should I do when my loved one hallucinates?

It’s important to not dismiss your loved one’s beliefs and experiences, as this could cause emotional stress. 

By acknowledging what they are seeing or hearing, you can help by being a voice of reason in the situation.

For example, if they see a person in the room, you can say “let’s bring them a cup of tea”. 

This will allow your loved one to focus on a task and allow them to focus on the present.

Are hallucinations the same as delusions?

Hallucinations are different from delusions as they are sensory experiences or perceptions. 

Delusions on the other hand are to do with your thoughts and beliefs, such as irrational thinking and paranoia.

Delusions can be a symptom of a psychotic disorder, as well as a common experience for people with dementia.

Mismatched memories

Delusions can be caused by mistaken memories or different memories incorrectly pieced together, to create a belief that isn’t real.

Common delusions include theft, that someone is stealing personal property or household items from them. 

Or the belief that someone is trying to harm them or doing something hurtful behind their back.

Are hallucinations the same as delusions

Time shifting in dementia

People with dementia may experience something known as time-shifting

This is a phenomenon in which the person believes they are living in an earlier time in their life, such as their childhood. 

Since memories from this time can be the strongest for people with dementia, they can easily recall people, places and events from this time.

If you’re wondering how to harness the power of these memories, try reminiscence therapy for dementia

Living in the past

They may believe in situations such as someone from the time they have ‘shifted’ to is coming to meet them. 

Time-shifting isn’t hallucination, as the person is seeing real things and people, just not necessarily recognising them for what they are. 

Instead they are interpreting them as part of the time-period they believe they are in. 

For example, not recognising their adult children or even themselves, as they remember a younger version.

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