It was the strangest situation. My mum rang me one evening and told me that there were people in her living room refusing to leave. She said they were standing around talking and ignoring her. I asked her to put one of them on the phone to me, and I heard her saying: ‘Excuse me, my daughter wants to speak to you’. I didn’t hear their reply. I could only hear the TV. Mum told me she couldn’t get their attention. It broke my heart as I realised what was happening. It turned out that mum was watching a TV show depicting a scene where people were standing around chatting at a drinks party. She genuinely thought the characters from the show were in the room with her. She thought they had gate crashed their way into her home for a party and were refusing to leave. She must have been very scared. I knew at that stage of her dementia I wouldn’t be able to reason with her. Telling her the people weren’t real wouldn’t make sense to her. In her world, they were there in her living room.
I lived more than an hour away from mum, so I couldn’t deal with the situation unaided. I asked mum to go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea while I got rid of her ‘uninvited guests’. I rang her neighbour and asked her to go over and turn the television off. The neighbour kindly obliged.
Then I told mum the situation had been dealt with and the people had been extracted from her house. When she went back into the lounge to peace and quiet, she was relieved. She honestly believed they had been in her house and had been made to leave. I realised at that stage just how bad her dementia had become and I moved her into a care home shortly afterwards. By that time, mum was convinced that every character on television was in the room with her, which meant that documentaries depicting scary animals or violent movies had to be avoided at all costs.
I’ve heard other examples of a person with dementia thinking that photos of people on magazine or book covers are real people. Go with the flow. If the person wants to wave at a photo they think is a real person, it’s not necessarily harmful, provided they don’t find the image distressing.
You may also find that your loved one hallucinates from time to time. They may see things like flashing lights or bugs crawling on the floor or they may hear voices. This may be more common in Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body Dementia, but can also be experienced by a person who has Alzheimer’s disease. These can be caused by changes in the brain but external factors such as a noisy environment, too many people or distractions, or unfamiliar environments can also be contributing causes. Try to keep a calm environment for your loved one and stick to a consistent routine where possible.
If your loved one appears to be seeing things that aren’t there, avoid trying to explain or correct them about what they are seeing. You may be able to distract them with something else – such as the offer of a cup of tea or asking them to help you with a task – but you can also reassure the person. you’re there for them. If they are having hallucinations for the first time, it’s worth getting them to see their GP.