Feb 23, 2018

How to Cope With Your Emotions When Your Loved One Has Hallucinations

A hallucination occurs when a person sees, hears, feels, tastes, or smells something that isn’t there.

Hallucinations are sensations while appearing to be real are created by your mind.

by Marie Marley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

“Marie,” my life partner, Ed, shouted by phone from his memory care facility. “I was beaten by six aides today.”

I gasped as though someone had just hit me in the solar plexus.

He continued, his voice breaking, “They beat me and kicked me repeatedly.”

  • In a moment of sheer terror, I wondered if maybe someone had hit him. TV news stories of nursing home abuse flashed before my eyes and I felt nauseous.

I struggled to breathe. While one aide could hit a resident in a closed-door room, six could never hide their actions.

I was still shaking and dizzy as I realized Ed had experienced a frightening hallucination.

I was devastated because Ed was suffering emotionally as much as if he had been beaten. His story haunted me for days, but when I visited the next day, he had forgotten all about it.
  • A hallucination is when a person sees, hears, feels, tastes, or smells something that isn’t there. 
It’s different from a delusion, which is when someone has a strongly held, but inaccurate, belief that no amount of persuading or arguing can shake.

I couldn’t find any article discussing how caregivers can cope emotionally when their loved ones have hallucinations.

Two articles about hallucinations have been published here on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room. One is by Bob DeMarco; the other, by Rachael Wonderlin. While both are excellent articles, neither focuses on how the caregiver can handle his or her emotions in this situation.

I also reviewed the general literature and similarly, found nothing on the topic. When I typed “How to Cope with a Hallucination,” in the Google search box, I found numerous articles, but all dealt with how the caregiver can help the person having the hallucination.

I’m not saying nothing has been written on this topic—just that I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to write an article myself. Caregivers witnessing hallucinations need help.

It isn’t unusual for a person with Alzheimer’s or another dementia to have hallucinations. Being in the presence of a person who’s hallucinating can be an overwhelming and terrifying experience.

My personal experience with multiple people living with Alzheimer’s who had hallucinations is that I was shaken to my core. I was so disturbed I often felt like I might faint.

What’s more, the experience is likely to remain with us and upset us for some time, though, as in my example above with Ed, the person with Alzheimer’s who had the hallucination might soon forget it. We are the ones who continue suffering.

Here are 15 tips for coping hallucinations you may find helpful:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. If you’re standing, sit down.
  3. Relax as much as possible.
  4. Realize that the person’s hallucination is being caused by Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain.
  5. Don’t be angry with the person. Understand that they aren’t doing it on purpose. He or she can’t help hallucinating any more than you can help being lucid.

  6. Remember that your loved one may soon forget about the hallucination. Don’t continue to suffer needlessly when the person is no longer is upset.
  7. Share your feelings about the hallucinations with someone else—perhaps a good friend or relative.
  8. If you remain upset long after the hallucination has ended, consider seeing a therapist or your spiritual leader.
  9. Join a support group. You can benefit from knowing you aren’t alone and from hearing how other people have handled their emotions about their loved one’s hallucinations.

  10. Take a break. Ask a friend or family member to care for the person for a while so you can rest and recover and recharge. Take advantage of this opportunity to do something special for yourself. Go to a movie, go to the gym, or engage in a favorite hobby.
  11. If no one is able to take over for you, consider using respite care for a time. Alternatively, hire an in-home caregiver for a while so you can rest your mind.
  12. Learn as much about hallucinations as possible. Knowledge is power. This may help you cope better. You can find a good review article here. Google “hallucinations” to find other helpful articles.
  13. Follow tips for helping the person, as set forth in the Wonderlin article cited above. You can feel better just by having something you can do.
  14. Take the person to the doctor. The hallucinations could be being caused by a urinary tract infection or other medical condition that can be treated. If the hallucinations stop, your emotional upheaval will end, too.

  15. Unless they’re caused by an underlying curable medical problem, you’ll never be able to stop your loved one’s hallucinations, but putting the tips above into practice may make your feelings more manageable.

Come Back Early Today
Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. Caregivers have said it helped them a lot.  Former caregivers said they wish they’d had it when they were caregivers. Marie’s website, Come Back Early Today, has a wealth of information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

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