Imagine seeing things that frighten you and not being able to make them go away. Or hearing noises that you can’t understand or explain. For many people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, memory deficits can cause hallucinations, especially as their diseases progress and their cognitive functions decline.

Although both are common effects of dementia, hallucinations and delusions are very different from each other. Delusions involve false beliefs, whereas hallucinations are false perceptions. Individuals experiencing delusions might believe that someone is following them, or stealing their possessions. Hallucinations, on the other hand, are sensory in nature—causing someone to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel something that is not real.

Hallucinations can be frightening experiences for those with dementia, as well as for their families and caregivers. It helps to understand why someone with Alzheimer’s might experience hallucinations.

Why do hallucinations happen?

Changes occurring in their brains can cause individuals with Alzheimer’s to have hallucinations.  In addition, underlying conditions such as infections, dehydration, and pain can trigger hallucinations.

Adverse reactions to medications—both prescription and over-the-counter medications—can also bring about hallucinations. Caregivers should carefully monitor medication intake to ensure that correct prescriptions are being taken—and that proper dosage instructions are being followed.

Only a physician can determine the exact cause of hallucinations, so caregivers should take someone experiencing issues to a doctor. When possible, caregivers should log dates, times, and situations in which hallucinations occur and share that information with the individual’s physician.

What you can do

While it’s difficult to prevent hallucinations from happening, there are steps caregivers can take to lessen their effects. Identifying and eliminating certain causes for hallucinations is a good place to begin.

There are often triggers involved when people with Alzheimer’s and dementia hallucinate.

For example, if someone senses another person in the mirror, try covering up the mirror. If a person in your care sees figments in the dark, consider installing a nightlight or leaving on lights. And if an individual senses scary or confusing voices on television, it’s best to turn off the TV.

Be the voice of reason

Caregivers should try comforting someone experiencing a hallucination. Rather than trying to explain away what the person is sensing, acknowledge the feeling and promise you’ll take care of everything. Remember, for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, what they are sensing is real. Arguing or trying to convince them otherwise will only increase frustration and negatively.

By maintaining a calm and comforting demeanor, you can help someone with dementia work through hallucinations.