Dear Dr. K,
Any ideas on how I can relieve my mother’s anxiety about her thinking an animal got in the house? I can’t find anything and have moved the couches but she is convinced and scared.
She’s always been a worrier, plus her thinking has been deteriorating and her vision is impaired a bit. I take care of her and my Dad both 94. She gets upset if I tell her I think she just thought she was seeing something and says I think she is crazy. Last night she woke me up shaking and practically in tears because she thought she saw it again -I offered for her to come sleep with me but she wouldn’t. Any suggestions? — C.S.
Thanks so much for sending in this question. This is a very common complaint I hear from family caregivers, so I am happy to share some thoughts about what might be going on and what you can do.
Now, I can’t say for sure what is going on with your mother. That’s because she’s not my patient, and I’m not in a position to interview her and examine her.
What I can say, however, is that it’s very common for older adults to develop persisting fears, worries, and complaints that often strike their family members as irrational, paranoid, absurd, or ridiculous.
Why is this?
Among my own patients, I’ve found this is often related to underlying cognitive impairment. Meaning, a problem with memory or thinking that hasn’t yet been fully diagnosed by doctors. In some cases, this kind of complaint ends up being one of the very earliest signs of clinical dementia.
Lewy-Body dementia, in particular, is associated with visual hallucinations. But any process causing brain deterioration (Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, etc.) can result in anxieties spiraling out of control, or persisting strange beliefs.
That said, it’s quite possible for an aging person to express such fears and not have it be dementia. Maybe there really is an animal in the house, or a person stealing your parent’s things. It’s also possible for people to develop confusion or false beliefs due a problem other than dementia, such as mental illness or delirium.
(For more in-depth information on the most common causes of paranoia and strange beliefs in older adults, see this article:
6 Causes of Paranoia in Aging & What to Do.)
Still, given your mom’s age and the fact you’ve noticed other signs of “thinking deterioration,” there’s a good chance that her persisting fear could be related to some chronic underlying cognitive impairment.
4 Things to try to help your mother
I can’t tell you what you should do, but here are some ideas that are generally helpful for this type of situation:
1. Evaluate her underlying cognitive condition. In other words, get her evaluated for possible underlying dementia. Alzheimer’s and other dementias are not curable, but if that’s what’s going on, getting a diagnosis sooner rather than later can help you. For instance, if she gets this diagnosis then you’ll know to look for relevant caregiver resources, including resources on communication in dementia.
For more on what can cause cognitive problems in older adults, see “Cognitive Impairment in Aging: 10 Common Causes & 10 Things the Doctor Should Check.”
Last but not least, if she is diagnosed with dementia, your family should address advance care planning, and prepare for further cognitive decline. (This is sad to think about, but important!)
2. Reason why, rather than reasoning with. Instead of trying to convince her that nothing is there, see if you can figure out what might be triggering her perception that an animal is in the house. Is there a flapping curtain or other object that she’s misinterpreting, given her vision problems? Would better lighting in the house at night help?
3. Prioritize reassurance, validation, and emotional connection over rational explanations. No matter what their age or mental condition, people respond to feeling heard and loved.
And once the brain starts changing, it’s even less likely that a logical explanation will relieve a person’s anxiety. So, try focusing on acknowledging her concern and helping her feel better. It does sound like you’re already trying to do this, but since it’s such an important point, I’m saying it anyway!
Interestingly, research indicates that even people with poor memories maintain a lasting impression of an emotional experience. So keep fostering those positive emotions however you can. You might find that a hug and song work better than moving all the couches, and having your mother worry that you think she’s crazy.
4. Consider getting ideas from others caring for elderly relatives. Other family caregivers are often an excellent source of advice for trouble-shooting common problems such as anxiety, or even delusions.
You can start getting ideas — and support — from other caregivers right away through an online forum, such as the one at AgingCare.com. I would recommend doing this while her cognitive evaluation is pending, as you and she need practical behavior solutions sooner rather than later.
(Need more guidance on how to implement the suggestions above? I do offer a course to help families with all of this: Helping Older Parents with Early Memory Loss.)
Whom to ask for help
Of course, I always recommend families bring up their concerns with their relative’s doctors. Most concerns families have about an aging parent do track back to underlying medical problems that should be identified and addressed.
That said, many primary care doctors don’t have the time or experience to provide the optimal evaluation and support. If her doctor doesn’t seem very helpful, consider a specialty consultation with a neurologist, memory center, or geriatrician. (See this post for ideas on how to find a geriatrics consultation.) This should enable you to get a better understanding of what brain and body problems might be affecting your mother’s behavior.
For managing day-to-day challenges, you can get excellent practical advice from geriatric care managers, but this usually requires paying out of pocket.
I hope some of this advice helps. This is a tough situation to deal with, but if you’re persistent about investigating and looking into other ways to respond, you’ll hopefully hit upon an approach that brings your family some relief.
If nothing else, finding out that other people are dealing with similar problems is often a big relief to people.
You might also find my free online training for families helpful (see below), in which I teach families how to better communicate with an aging parent who may have memory loss.
[This article was last updated in June 2023.]