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Understanding hallucinations

Hallucinations are caused by changes within the brain that result from Alzheimer’s, usually in the later stages of the disease. The person may see the face of a former friend in a curtain or insects crawling on their hand. In other cases, that person may hear people talking or speak to an imagined person.

Hallucinations can be frightening. On some occasions, individuals may see threatening images, but they also might just see ordinary pictures of people, situations or objects from the past.

Alzheimer’s is not the only cause of hallucinations. A doctor can rule other causes out, including

  • Schizophrenia
  • Physical problems, such as kidney or bladder infections, dehydration, intense pain, or alcohol or drug abuse
  • Eyesight or hearing problems
  • Medications

Responding to hallucinations

Be cautious and conservative when responding to hallucinations. Assess the situation and determine whether the hallucination is a problem for the person or for you. Is the hallucination upsetting? Is it leading the person to do something dangerous? Is the sight of an unfamiliar face causing the person to become frightened? If so, react calmly and quickly with reassuring words and a comforting touch. Do not argue with the person about what he or she sees or hears. If the behavior is not dangerous, there may not be a need to intervene.

Offer reassurance

  • Respond in a calm, supportive manner. You may want to respond with, “Don’t worry. I’m here. I’ll protect you. I’ll take care of you.”
  • Gentle patting may turn the person’s attention toward you and reduce the hallucination.
  • Acknowledge the feelings behind the hallucination and try to find out what the hallucination means to the individual. You might want to say, “It sounds as if you’re worried,” or “I know this is frightening for you.”

Use distractions

  • Suggest that you take a walk or sit in another room. Frightening hallucinations often subside in well-lit areas where other people are present.
  • Try to turn the person’s attention to music, conversation or activities you enjoy together.

Modify the environment

  • Check for sounds that might be misinterpreted, such as noise from a television or an air conditioner.
  • Look for lighting that casts shadows, reflections or distortions on the surfaces of floors, walls, and furniture. Turn on lights to reduce shadows.
  • Cover mirrors with a cloth or remove them entirely if the person thinks that he or she is looking at a stranger.