How can I tell if my mom has Alzheimer's or short term memory loss? I think she's hallucinating.

A fellow caregiver asked...

How can I tell if the odd stories my 80 year mother tells me are hallucinations or dreams that are very real-seeming to her or does it really make a difference? I am still grappling with whether she has Alzheimer's or if she is simply having age related memory loss. She definitely has short term memory loss - very short - and she tells me some pretty "interesting" things... For instance, she was recently in the hospital and told me that some man that she had never seen before came into her room and wheeled her, in her bed with all the monitoring equipment attached and the IVs and Oxygen, down the hall and parked her outside his office so he could keep an eye on her and left her there all night and she didn't sleep a bit.

Expert Answer

As Founder and Director of Circles of Care, Ann Cason provides caregiving, consulting, and training services to individuals and public and private organizations involved in eldercare. She is the author of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders.

The mind of old age is fascinating. Hallucinations could be caused by Alzheimer's.  On the other hand, they could be caused by medication or other types of illness. It is not unusal for an elder to hallucinate in the hospital; then settle down at home.

Your mother needs a diagnosis from a doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine. This specialty if not always available, but if not, find a good internal medicine physician or a geriatic psychiatrist or neurologist. Some clinics have phsychiatric nurse practioners. It would be wonderful to find that her condition is treatable.

Whether it is Alzheimer's or hallucinations from other causes, pay attention to how you communicate with your mother.

  • Try not to accept or reject her view of the  world. Don't try to talk her out of it. 
  • Let yourself feel how scarey it would be to sit in the hallway.
  • Say, "Mother you must be tired. Let me hold your hand while you rest."
  • It is easy to lose track of time in a hospital. Night and day are not clear.
  • Could she have been waiting for an xray.
  • Sometimes hospitals keep restless elders by the nursing station to keep them safe.
  • When an elder tells me."Don't sit there, can't you see my little friend?" I might tell her that I can't see her friend and then answer, "Thank you for telling me."