Last week's blog was about understanding and managing fluctuations, from a presentation by a mentor of ours, Tanis Ferman, of the Jackson Florida branch of the Mayo Clinic. This next series of blogs are about the other part of her presentation at the 2019 IDLB Conference, understanding and managing hallucinations. I've added some information of our own as we go along too.
Visual hallucinations (VH), or perceived images of people, animals, objects occur in 60-75% of LBD. These images tend to be quite vivid and real appearing. Early in the disease journey, a person can often accept feedback from a care partner that the images aren't real. This is very common in late PD.
At one PD group Fred told us he saw "Little army men." He knew they weren't real because his wife didn't see them. "But, he said, they are fascinating. I enjoy them." However, as Fred's disease progresses and he loses the abstract thinking ability to compare, he must accept only what his own brain tells him. Then his little army men will be real to him.
That's when delusions (false beliefs) related to the image become common. These often become very involved. A friend of our told of her husband, Bill, who "saw" wolves in the back of their pickup and had many stories about their lives there. As with Bill, the hallucination happens and then the brain spins a story to make sense of it--to him if not to anyone else!
Auditory hallucinations are less common, occuring in about 30% of those living with LBD. These include sounds such as a doorbell, phone ring, music or muffled conversations.
Presence hallucinations are the feeling that somebody is present but just out of sight, behind or to the side perhaps. These occur but are even less common than auditory hallucinations.
Visual misperceptions (illusions) are very common in LBD. This is where an object is mistaken for something else. While these can contribute to delusions, they may also be easier to debunk. For example, a person may be able to accept that the dog they saw on the sofa was really a wadded up blanket that looked like a dog if they can touch it and shake the blanket out.
Visual misidentifications are where a person sees a person, object or location and identifies it as a duplicate or imposter. When the misidentification involves a person, usually someone close to the person, it is called Capgras syndrome. Recent research has found that Capgras is a visual dysfunction. If your loved one believes you are a look-alike imposter, try going out of the room and start talking before you come back into his sight. He will hear your voice and identify it as yours. Then when you enter, you are who he expects to see and who he does "see."
These visual symptoms all occur due to neuron loss in the areas of the brain that control sensory, especially visual, perception. They may also be partially due to an intrusion of dream sleep into wakefulness. Dan, a support group member tells about his deceased wife, Anita. She used wake up thinking someone was ringing the doorbell. Dan would dutifully get up and answer the door but no one was ever there.
Anita started out dreaming about the doorbell. The "sound" woke her up and became an auditory hallucination. Since Anita's thinking ability was diminished she believed the doorbells were real.
Insight, or the ability to tell the difference between reality and hallucinations, is affected when the thinking centers of the brain and their connections to the visual centers begin to fail.
Many hallucinations don't need management at all. If they are not distressing your loved one or making you unsafe, let them be. However, your loved one's reaction to their hallucination can often be stressful, to them or to you or most likely both of you.
Hallucinations can trigger delusional accusations or paranoid worries fostered by negative emotions such as ongoing fears such as a fear of abandonment or loss. In addition, any negative response is apt to be catastrophic, since the dementia-damaged brain doesn't do levels of intensity. Emotions tend to be either very intense or absent.
Next week's blog addresses some ways to manage these more difficult events.
For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia
Responsive Dementia Care: Fewer Behaviors Fewer Drugs
Lewy Body Dementia: A Manual for Staff
Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.