Causes and Treatments of Hallucinations in the Elderly

Also called sensory hallucination, a hallucination refers to an abnormal sensory perception, which could be visual or auditory in nature. You are hallucinated when you have abnormal sensory perception while being awake and conscious. Even though a hallucination is an unreal and distorted sensory experience, it may appear real to the patient. You are likely to deal with hallucinations when you are tired or alone. Hallucinations in old-aged people are quite common and require serious care. 

Symptoms of Hallucinations in the Elderly

It is not always easy to recognize the symptoms of a hallucination. A patient may not even realize he/she is having distorted sensory experiences unless the hallucinations are severe. A change in behavior is usually the first noticeable symptom of hallucination. Here are some of the most common signs of hallucinations:

  • Delusions
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Memory lapses
  • Mood instability
  • Speaking about things that may not be there
  • Insomnia
  • Impaired judgment
  • Withdrawal
  • Heightened sense of awareness

People who experience this disorder are likely to see people, things, faces, color patterns, and halos around lights. It is also common for a patient to see a deceased person or hear the person's voice. If you notice any of these symptoms in a loved one, you should go talk to a doctor as soon as possible. A visit to the doctor should be scheduled immediately if your elderly relative tells you he or she sees objects, hears voices, or smells odors that are not there.

Causes of Hallucinations in the Elderly

Hallucinations may be the result of extreme stress, emotional exhaustion, fatigue, posttraumatic stress disorder, loss of a beloved, sleep deprivation, depression, or insomnia. Severe illnesses like brain cancer, liver failure, kidney failure, etc., may also result in the same.

In case the elderly is experiencing an aura of smell or touch, it could be due to a change in the organic compounds of the brain. This could also indicate that you are at a greater risk of having a migraine or epileptic attack. Similarly, sensory deprivation can lead to hallucinations – it means that deaf people are likely to suffer from auditory hallucinations and the blind may have visual hallucinations.

The elderly relative may have these problems due to an underlying disorder. For instance:

  • Charles Bonnet Syndrome: It usually affects people with vision loss and makes them see lines across their visual field. They may notice animal and birds moving in front of them, even though there is nothing there. They may also have delirium and dementia. They have these hallucinations mainly because of an external stimulus.
  • Sundown Syndrome: The condition affects you during the late evening, afternoon, or night. It affects people who may already have Alzheimer's, dementia, or psychosis. Auditory and visual hallucinations are the most common symptoms of the sundown syndrome.

How to Care for Elderly Experiencing Hallucinations

Once you have confirmed that your elderly relative is experiencing hallucinations, it is important that you learn how to take care of him or her properly. Here are a few suggestions to consider when you notice hallucinations in your elderly relative.

  • Talk to a Doctor: You should seek medical advice and follow what your doctor says. The doctor will suggest medication and help you learn how to take care of certain things while the elderly continue to have hallucinations.
  • Sit Quietly: You should be around the person but sit quietly. You just need to reassure the elderly that you are there if he/she needs any help.
  • Comfort the Elderly: You may have to comfort your loved one if he/she experiences any hallucinations. The person may have visions of his/her past. Ask your doctor to change the medications if the old ones are not helping and the elderly feel disturbed or frightened.
  • Do Not Push the Patient: You may feel that you should try to reason with the patient and tell him/her that he/she is only being delusional, but that is not going to prove effective. You will be better off going along with it. It may sometimes help to change the topic or distract the one with something else.
  • Maintain a Routine: You need to make an effort to keep a regular routine and modify things around you in a way that helps the patient. This may include large clocks, labels on the doors, calendars, etc.

Treatments for Hallucinations in the Elderly

Whether your elderly relative knows that he/she is hallucinating or not, it is important to work with a doctor to determine the best treatment approach. Your doctor will first look for the root cause of the hallucination to identify the most appropriate treatment option. After that, the doctor may prescribe antidepression or anti-anxiety medications to make the patient feel relaxed.

In case there is a specific reason why your elderly relative is hallucinating, your doctor may prescribe medication for that disorder only. For instance, it is possible to hallucinate due to Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and it can be treated by changing the environment. Some patients with this syndrome hallucinate when they are in dark rooms. A simple solution would be to keep a light on at all times.

Depending on the underlying cause, doctors may opt for other treatment options for hallucinations in the elderly. Some other common treatment options are sleep aids, sedatives, and muscle relaxers. The main purpose of these medications is to help patients feel more relaxed, which in turn will reduce the severity and frequency of hallucinations.

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