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Hallucinations in the Elderly

When you dream, anything is possible. You can have a new life, acquire amazing abilities, or be a completely different person. On the other hand, you can be trapped in a nightmare that you want no part of. However, once you wake up, everything’s back to normal again.

For some people, though, these visions don’t end when they open their eyes. Reality can still be altered by hallucinations for certain individuals even when they’re wide awake. This can be disconcerting and frightening at any age, but it can be even more so for the elderly people in your life, as it can indicate a serious underlying condition.

Before jumping to the conclusion that it’s Alzheimer’s or dementia, first consider that something else might be causing hallucinations in the elderly. Once you know the true cause behind these symptoms, you can take the necessary steps to treat their condition and comfort them when they experience one of these episodes.

How Do You Know If an Elderly Person Is Hallucinating?

Not all hallucinations involve seeing things that aren’t there. Due to the aging process, our senses become duller. As a result, the areas in the brain that control those senses become hyperactive because of a lack of stimulation.

That being said, a hallucination can involve one or more of the 5 senses due to an overreaction of the central nervous system. Depending on how big or small this overreaction is, it may be hard for both you and your loved one to detect when a hallucination is actually happening.

Usually a hallucination has to be fairly severe for an episode to be noticeable. Besides seeing, hearing, or smelling nonexistent things, one of the biggest indicators that an elderly person is hallucinating is when their behavior changes.

They may become irritable or anxious when they’re usually not and appear to be in a state of confusion and forgetfulness. Individuals may be aware that something is wrong and begin to isolate themselves due to a feeling of embarrassment or shame surrounding their condition.

Causes of Hallucinations in the Elderly

There are actually quite a few causes of hallucinations in the elderly. Although a mental disorder of some kind is usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about hallucinations, there are a variety of other causes that could be the true culprit. Here are some of the more common reasons:

  • Vision or Hearing Loss: As mentioned before, our nerves begin to deteriorate as we get older. However, individuals who have a considerable amount of vision or hearing loss—such as from glaucoma or otosclerosis respectively—are more at risk since their brains become more hyperactive to the point where the individual is made to see and hear things that are different from reality.
  • Psychiatric Disorder: Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses are known to cause hallucinations in the people who have them. If an elderly person has experienced hallucinations before from one of these disorders when they were younger, these symptoms will most likely continue as they age.
  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s: Despite there being numerous reasons why an elderly person is hallucinating, dementia is still one of the most common causes. This symptom is an early indicator for both dementia and Alzheimer’s and can worsen towards the end of the day due to a condition known as Sundowner’s Syndrome.
  • Medication: Hallucinations can be the side effect of certain medications as well. That being said, it’s best to check the medicine a senior citizen is taking to see if one or a combination of prescriptions is causing them to hallucinate.
  • Sleep Deprivation: Not getting enough sleep may not only put you in a cranky mood, it can make you hallucinate as well, no matter how old or young you are.
  • Charles Bonnet Syndrome: Like dementia, Charles Bonnet Syndrome is another main condition that causes hallucinations. However, it only affects individuals whose vision is impaired. Thankfully, the frequency of hallucinogenic episodes is low for people with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and symptoms usually go away within a couple years.
  • Substance Abuse: Substance abuse may also be why an elderly person is seeing or hearing things. Certain illicit drugs are known to cause hallucinations, and drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can also induce visions.

What You Should Do

If you you believe a senior citizen has one of these conditions or have witnessed them exhibiting these symptoms, contact a doctor immediately. They’ll be able to run tests to figure out why your loved one is hallucinating. If anything, anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication can be prescribed to prevent future episodes.

Once a reason is discovered for their symptoms, the course of treatment truly depends on which malady they have. How dementia is treated is vastly different than how Charles Bonnet Syndrome is treated. However, there are some medications people who suffer from hallucinations commonly take, such as muscle relaxers, sedatives, and sleep aids. These medications calm nerves and ease any agitation that can trigger an episode.

Until then, there are steps you can take to help the senior citizen in your life when they are experiencing a hallucination. For instance, instead of telling them that what they’re seeing or hearing isn’t real, ask them about it and see if there’s any way you can help. Shifting their thoughts to other things they like to do can also make a hallucination stop.

To prevent future episodes from happening, it’s best to have a consistent schedule for the elderly person and not change up their routine too much. Make sure their living environment is as comfortable as possible as well. If possible, have the senior citizen live with people they’re comfortable with and provide ample lighting so that shadows don’t induce a hallucination.

Although hallucinations can sometimes be pleasant, many of them are actually confusing and frightening. As people age, their chances of experiencing an episode only increase. As caregivers or concerned relatives, we should seek professional help for our elderly loved ones as soon as possible if they begin showing hallucinogenic symptoms. By taking further steps to comfort a senior citizen through a hallucination, we can bring peace to a distressed individual as well as help in the protection of this vulnerable population.

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