One of the more unnerving side effects of dementia are the delusions and hallucinations these patients sometimes suffer. They can leave the patient very troubled and scared, yet they’re difficult for loved ones to address because they know these illusions aren’t real. Around 25% to 40% of dementia patients experience these episodes. They will often respond with agitation, aggression, or even violence. This behavior may be more threatening and troubling as the disease advances, as patients are more likely to respond to what’s going on in their minds.
Your initial instinct might be to try to reassure your loved one that what they’re seeing isn’t real. But this is often a mistake. The patient can easily get the perception that you don’t take them and what they’re seeing and feeling seriously. Rather than being comforted, they may feel isolated and hurt.
Instead, what you’ll want to do is offer some acceptance to their reality. No, you don’t have to believe that mom’s long-dead sister is in the room with you, but you should understand that the experience is real for your mother. If you do this, you’ll bring stability to the situation much more quickly than if you tried to fight them on what they’re perceiving. Be reassuring: “You must feel frightened. I would be frightened too. But I will stay here with you to make sure you’re safe.” It may also help to offer some form of physical comfort, such as a touch on the arm. No only does this reinforce that you are there for them, but also helps draw their attention towards you and away from what’s bothering them. You can also help make the problem vanish by getting your loved one to a different environment like another room or outside for a little fresh air.
Some hallucinations might be comforting. Dad may be imagining that he hears birds pleasantly tweeting. If he seems to be happy about this, you may not want to disrupt this at all. You only really need to worry if what your loved one is perceiving puts them or others in some kind of danger.
Unfortunately, you won’t always be so lucky and there isn’t much you can do to prevent these incidents. Medication may help, but it may have side effects that bring new problems. Understand that feeling distressed and overwhelmed in these situations is normal. By learning all you can about this effect of dementia, you can help yourself to cope with it more effectively.