Is it common to have hallucinations with Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mom, who's 80, insists that she saw a grizzly bear in her suburban backyard yesterday. What's the best way to handle hallucinations?

Expert Answer

Hallucinations -- seeing and hearing imaginary things -- aren't uncommon in people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. They're part of a group of symptoms known as "psychotic symptoms," which also include delusions (false beliefs) and paranoia.

Although your first instinct is to correct your mother, the person with dementia often can't think logically. Attempts to dissuade her from what she believes will often make her agitated and may leave you feeling more upset as well. No one wants to spend valuable time arguing with a loved one with dementia.

The best strategy: Reassure your mom that she's safe and will come to no harm. Distract her with discussions about other things that are pleasant or redirect her to something that's calming or routine. For example, you could acknowledge that it must have been surprising to see the bear, but suggest that now you need to focus on getting ready for dinner and ask her to set the table. If your mother is easily reassured and the hallucinations aren't particularly upsetting, this is usually enough and the incident is forgotten.

Occasionally, hallucinations can be quite disruptive. Certain medications can be used if hallucinations are interfering with a person's quality of life or making it difficult to remain at home safely. These medications, which need to be prescribed by a doctor, do have side effects and aren't always effective, so it's always best to try reassurance and distraction first.