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What Causes Hallucinations in Seniors?

A senior woman with glasses sitting on a couch appears to be sad and looking outside the window

If you have a senior loved one, you may have noticed that they occasionally experience hallucinations of some sort. While these aren’t a common occurrence, they aren’t unheard of and are usually an indication that something more serious is occurring. So, what causes hallucinations in seniors?

Often, hallucinations in seniors are caused by a form of memory impairment like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Hallucinations in seniors can also be caused by a reaction to medication, the loss of a sense, an illness, or even a brain injury.

Because there are several potential causes, it’s crucial to seek professional care if you have a senior loved one experiencing hallucinations.

Are Hallucinations & Delusions the Same Thing?

You may have heard “delusions” and “hallucinations” used in the same context, but they aren’t the same thing. While both hallucinations and delusions are symptoms often associated with mental health disorders, advanced age, reactions to medications, or any other psychiatric situation, there are some key differences.

What Is a Hallucination?

A hallucination occurs when the brain is reacting to something that isn’t there. This often includes hearing voices, seeing people who aren’t there, or thinking that you’re in danger when there’s nothing occurring. Despite there being no external stimuli, the brain truly believes something is there—and at least one of the five senses is “confirming” this. 

Whether it’s hearing voices, seeing something that isn’t there, or feeling like there’s something on the skin, the brain appears to be receiving confirmation that this event is actually happening—so it responds as it deems appropriate for the situation it thinks is occurring.

What Is a Delusion?

On the other hand, a delusion is a firmly held false belief—even when it’s proven to be wrong. Delusions are usually irrational to some degree and often involve some form of misconception or misunderstanding. Unlike a hallucination, where the senses confirm or begin the hallucination, a delusion involves false beliefs or an idea that doesn’t respond to any reason.

This can be witnessed when a person believes that someone is out to get them, despite being proven that this isn’t true. Or they may believe they’re the reincarnation of some famous figure from history—even though this is impossible.

Both hallucinations and delusions can be caused by many factors, ranging from different medications reacting to each other to the onset of memory impairment.

Is It Normal for Seniors to Hallucinate?

It isn’t normal for seniors to hallucinate—though it’s not unheard of. Aging comes with its fair share of changes in the brain and body, which can lead to a host of conditions that can cause unwanted side effects. 

It’s important to note, though, that hallucinations aren’t a typical part of aging. If a senior is experiencing hallucinations, it’s usually indicative of an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed. If a senior in your life is experiencing hallucinations—or delusions—you should schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional to get them professional care.

Can Dementia Cause Hallucinations?

While it isn’t a common occurrence, some seniors experience some form of hallucination in their later years. There’s a major factor that often leads to this development: memory impairment.

Memory impairment refers to conditions that affect the brain’s ability to remember things or function to its full cognitive potential. These conditions, like Alzheimer’s or dementia, cause a person’s mental and cognitive functions to significantly decline. And the longer they go untreated, the more severe these effects become.

When a person has memory impairment, they often experience:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty with communication and language
  • A change in their reasoning and judgment
  • Changes in mood and behavior
  • Wandering and getting lost
  • Difficulty recognizing familiar faces or objects

And one of the biggest problems caused by memory impairment is occasional hallucinations or delusions.

Potential Causes of Hallucinations

While memory impairment is one of the more common causes of hallucinations, it isn’t the only potential cause. Several factors can potentially lead to hallucinations in seniors.

  • Certain medications. Some drugs can cause hallucinations, especially if taken in large doses.
  • Vision or hearing loss. Sometimes, the brain tries to compensate for sensory loss by creating hallucinations to fill in the gaps.
  • Illness or injury. In some cases, hallucinations may be a symptom of a severe cold, fever,  or infection.
  • Injury to the brain
  • Sleep disorders that affect the body and brain’s ability to heal and recuperate

Because the range of potential causes is so wide, it can be difficult to self-diagnose what may be causing hallucinations. This makes it essential to seek the advice of a healthcare professional to receive an official diagnosis.

What to Do If a Senior Starts Hallucinating

If you notice that a senior in your life has started hallucinating, it’s important not to dismiss it.  There are some steps you can take that may make it easier for both of you:

  • Stay calm, and don’t argue with them. Don’t panic, as this can make them much more distressed.
  • Make sure they’re safe. Check the immediate environment and remove any potential dangers like sharp objects or open sources of heat.
  • Try redirection. You can try to get them to talk about a favorite memory or get them to tell you a story, depending on how responsive the person is to your presence.
  • Provide reassurance and comfort. Let them know you’re there to support them.
  • Try and keep a record. If you can note how long and how severe the hallucination appears to be, the information can be valuable for medical professionals.

If the situation becomes severe or dangerous, immediately leave and contact healthcare professionals. Don’t put yourself at any form of risk.

It’s crucial that you seek professional advice. Hallucinations can be an extremely distressing situation for both you and your loved one, and if they’re being caused by a medical condition, they’re likely to continue occurring until the underlying causes are addressed.

Memory Care for Seniors

If you have a loved one living with memory impairment, All Saints Senior Living is here for support. We have a memory care community that offers 24-hour onsite staff, medication management, and individualized wellness programs. Contact us online or schedule a tour of our community today.

Written by Lifespark

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