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Elderly paranoia is a distressing and often challenging condition to deal with. If your elderly loved one is hallucinating, developing persistent fears or imagining worrying situations, they may be suffering from old age paranoia. Symptoms can range from believing you are being followed, that possessions have been stolen, or that there is an intruder in your home.
Of course, this can be incredibly distressing not just for the person with elderly paranoia, but also for their loved ones. This guide is designed to help answer common questions about this mental health condition as well as offer guidance about the help available.
If you suspect that your elderly loved one is suffering from any signs or symptoms of elderly paranoia, it’s important to consult with your healthcare professional to get expert advice as soon as possible.
If you need some support so your loved one can continue living at home with old age paranoid, our Home Care Teams can help. Our Carers can provide a reassuring presence, regular respite for primary caregivers, or more physical help such as elderly sitting at night. To get started, find your local Alina Homecare Team today.
Elderly paranoia is a symptom of a wider mental health condition known as ‘psychosis’. It can be described as a person’s unfounded belief that other people mean them harm, which happens when their mental processing is disconnected from reality. For example, an elderly person might worry that someone is stealing from them, or that one of their longstanding friends wants to hurt them without any basis.
As a result, paranoia in older adults is incredibly serious. It can cause side effects like anxiety, stress and depression. It may also cause an elderly person to act out and cause physical harm to others. Unfortunately, older adults are more susceptible to developing paranoia. Experts estimate that as many as 16-23% of older people develop psychosis.1 As many as 30% of people with dementia experience hallucinations and delusions.2
Fortunately, elderly paranoia can be managed with care and support. This includes our Home Care services, where a friendly and professional Carer can provide physical assistance as well as emotional and mental reassurance.
Many people often swap the terms paranoia, delusions and hallucinations as if they mean the same thing when referring to psychosis. However, there are differences between paranoia and hallucinations and paranoia and delusions in the elderly. In many cases, someone could experience paranoia, delusions and hallucinations all at once. This is especially true in people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Hallucinations involve the senses, while paranoia affects a person’s thoughts and beliefs. External events aren’t necessary to have a hallucination. By contrast, paranoia relates to the way a person perceives their surroundings.
The NHS reports that around one fifth of older adults with late onset psychosis suffer from visual, tactile or olfactory hallucinations, which are much more common than younger adults.3
A delusion is a belief that simply isn’t true. A person experiencing delusions may think they’re being watched or make conclusions without evidence. For example, if a friend made a nasty comment about them once, they may believe the friend is now out to harm them. Paranoia is about the way the person perceives their environment, based on their thoughts and beliefs.
According to research, the most common delusions in elderly people are simple paranoid beliefs. This is most commonly paranoia about theft as well as delusions about a person’s home not being their own, that their caregiver is an imposter or will abandon them, or that their spouse is unfaithful.4
Firstly, it’s important to note that the fears and concerns expressed by elderly people may not be unfounded. Older people are a particularly vulnerable group within society, so any concerns raised should always be treated seriously.
That said, there are some key signs and symptoms of paranoia to look out for in older adults. Ask yourself if your elderly loved one suffers from:
Is your loved one consumed by feelings of paranoia?
Persecutory delusions may be persistent, but paranoid ideation can come and go. When suffering from this, your elderly loved one may believe someone is trying to steal money, talking about them behind their back or that they’re out to harm them.
If your loved one is feeling paranoid, they may have genuine reason so it’s important not to immediately discount their concerns.
Some elderly people may suffer from generally heightened suspicion. They may distrust other people and therefore be uncharacteristically rude to others. They might also accuse people of things, such as accusing family members of stealing or a spouse of being unfaithful.
As with paranoid ideation, your elderly loved one may have genuine reason so it’s important not to immediately discount their concerns.
Is your loved one suffering from delusions? Older adults with persecutory delusions may think that they’re being spied on, followed, poisoned, harassed, abused or unfairly treated. They may see things which aren’t there or hear things that no one else can. They will suffer from stress, caution, agitation and irritability as a result.
If you think you know someone with persecutory delusions, you should try to discount other potential causes such as a faulty hearing aid or medication causing unwanted side effects.
Dementia progressively damages the brain and therefore affects every aspect of life, including how we perceive reality. Dementia and paranoia in the elderly often go hand in hand.
All types of dementia can therefore cause delusions and paranoia, but certain types are more likely to cause it than others. This includes Lewy Body’s dementia as well as frontotemporal dementia. These conditions cause behaviour changes, lack of insight into behaviour and other symptoms that may result in paranoia.5
Unfortunately, there are many causes of paranoia in the elderly. These are often split into six ‘Ds’:
Delirium is a very common mental health condition. It can be triggered due to stress, severe illness, surgery or a stay in hospital. If your loved one has delirium, they may be quiet and withdrawn or on the other hand, extremely agitated and confused.
Episodes of confusion can be accompanied by paranoid delusions and hallucinations. One sign of delirium is when an elderly person picks at invisible objects on their clothes or bed.
Medication often comes with side effects and sometimes these may cause delusions, hallucinations and other types of psychosis. Abuse of drugs and alcohol can also have a similar effect. If you think your elderly loved one has paranoia triggered by medication, it’s very important to speak with their trained healthcare professional.
Physical health often interferes with mental and brain functions. Electrolytes, such as the amount of sodium, potassium, calcium or magnesium in our blood can affect the brain. So can vitamin deficiencies or issues like folate and thyroid problems or severe liver or kidney dysfunction.
In addition to this, there are various infections and neurological conditions which might cause paranoia in older adults. Finally, minor strokes may trigger psychosis symptoms as they can cause brain damage, as do brain tumours.
Can a urinary tract infection (UTI) cause paranoia in elderly people?
UTIs can indeed cause psychosis. If a urinary tract infection isn’t treated fast enough, bacteria from the urinary tract can move into the bladder and kidneys and cause an infection. In older people, this may cause sudden confusion, agitation and even accelerate dementia.
Again, it’s important to seek help from a trained healthcare professional like your NHS GP if you think your elderly loved one has a condition like a UTI that may be causing paranoia.
Dementia is a common condition in elderly people. Over 940,000 people are currently living with dementia in the UK.7 Delusions are also common, such as believing someone is stealing from them, a spouse has been unfaithful or is abandoning them, or that they’re being persecuted. Hallucinations are also common, especially if they have Lewy Body dementia.
If an elderly person suffers from paranoia and psychosis, doctors may investigate whether they have schizophrenia or a delusional disorder. Schizophrenia is not particularly common in older adults. It affects an estimated 0.1-0.5% of people over age 65.
Many are diagnosed earlier in life but late onset schizophrenia is possible. According to the NHS, risk factors for developing this are: female gender, social isolation and sensory impairments (sight, hearing).3
There are a range of impacts that elderly paranoia brings, which ultimately can decrease the quality of life of the person experiencing it. It can make people feel scared, isolated and like no one understands them. Here are some of the impacts that someone with elderly paranoia may experience:
People with elderly paranoia often feel isolated and depressed. This could be a result of them feeling as though they are not understood. They may also feel isolated if they are suspicious of the motives of the people around them, including their loved ones.
Elderly people with paranoia often experience heightened fear, distress and anxiety. This may be because they are constantly worried and agitated which over time can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing leading to a poorer quality of life.
Elderly people with paranoia may also become more dependent on loved ones. If their paranoia develops over time, this level of dependency will increase meaning round the clock care arrangements, such as Live-in Care, may be needed.
Elderly paranoia can lead to irrational decision making as seniors may make impulsive choices as a result of their fears. This can be significant if it’s regarding finances or other life altering decisions. It could also put their safety at risk.
If your elderly loved one has paranoia, they may begin to neglect their personal care routines. This is because heightened levels of fear may mean they forget to complete daily hygiene tasks such as brushing their teeth or eating regularly. Over time, this could lead to a decline in physical health.
If you know someone with elderly paranoia, they may feel fatigued frequently. Paranoia often results in sleep disturbances, especially if the person feels more distressed at night. A Waking Night Carer can help mitigate these feelings by staying awake through the night so your loved one feels reassured.
If you know someone experiencing elderly paranoia, it can be emotionally distressing and even draining both for you and for them. It can be hard to know whether to play along with a delusion or whether to challenge it. Here are some tips and advice you can apply to navigate the challenges you face:
It’s important not to argue with your loved one. People with elderly paranoia are unfortunately disconnected from reality, so arguing with them will not work. It’s best to focus on showing patience and being willing to listen to their concerns. This is also important so you can discount these concerns.
If you talk through their thoughts, you may be able to find a simple cause or even a solution. For example, if they recently moved into a care home and feel like they have been taken hostage, you could try to make their room feel more like home by introducing familiar objects or putting things in the same place.
Psychosis and paranoia can result in increased irritability and even aggression, especially in cases of dementia. Keeping your loved one’s surroundings calm and quiet is a good way to soothe them.
If your loved one lives in a busy street, closing the windows or playing calming music can help them to feel more relaxed. Bright lights may also make them feel agitated therefore using a lamp instead of a main light can also help to create a more peaceful environment.
If your loved one’s behaviour changes, it might be a sign of a more serious issue. If they start demonstrating heightened stress or anxiety, seek help. You might find journaling to keep track of their progress or deterioration is useful when you speak with their GP.
If you notice a significant change in your loved one’s behaviour, it’s important you seek professional medical help to ensure their safety.
Seeing a loved one in distress is always difficult and even more so if their paranoia becomes focused on you. If they accuse you or someone you know of something, try not to take it personally.
There may be something small which inspired the accusation, either past or present. See if you can investigate or get to the bottom of it. Make sure you let your loved one know you’re there to support them.
If you are your loved one’s primary caregiver, dealing with elderly paranoia can be incredibly difficult and all consuming. Make sure you find time for yourself wherever possible. This could include seeking a Respite Carer.
Respite Care involves a professional visiting your loved one in their home or taking your loved one to a facility where they can be looked after while you take a regular break and some time for yourself.
If your loved one is increasingly suspicious, they will watch the way you behave very closely. Remain calm and be mindful of the way you interact so they do not feel judged or attacked. Unfortunately, elderly paranoia and psychosis may mean that your loved one takes issue with your body language anyway.
Make sure you move about slowly as fast movements may result in your loved one responding negatively. It’s also important to keep calm and collected. Your loved one may be able to tell from your body language if you’re feeling nervous or worried which could make them feel more paranoid.
Dealing with an elderly person who suffers from paranoid delusions or any form of psychosis can be difficult. Over time, you may find ways of avoiding difficult situations. For instance, you could try having specific places for items that might get misplaced and trigger a suspicion or accusation.
You could also book regular eye and hearing tests for your loved one, so that their senses don’t play tricks on them. Finally, try and maintain stability and continuity. This is one of the key reasons why people often choose Home Care rather than a care home, as it means their elderly loved one can remain in familiar surroundings.
Your loved one is likely used to being reassured by you. Listening to their fears can help ease their irritability if they have the mental capacity to know they are being heard by someone they trust. If you dismiss their concerns too quickly or try to change the topic without properly acknowledging their fears, they could become more upset and even lose trust in you.
Always acknowledge their feelings and then set about establishing the truth independently. In the meantime, suggesting a distracting activity may help placate your loved one and move them on from their delusion.
When they are calm, you can then take active steps to address their suspicions such as storing valuables in secure places, keeping medication in a dosette box and always asking their permission before you do something.
Fortunately, many people with paranoia in old age can be treated for their condition. The first step when you suspect your loved one is paranoid is to visit their GP and explain the symptoms.
This might be difficult initially if your loved one is suspicious and they may accuse you of having bad motives. If this is the case, ring the GP initially and discuss your loved one’s symptoms over the phone. They can work with you to agree a way forward.
Depending on the symptoms of paranoid behaviour, doctors will explore different treatment options. This could include therapy, as well as medications like antidepressants or antipsychotics.
If your loved one is experiencing symptoms of elderly paranoia, it may be time to consider additional help. Help varies according to their needs, as well as yours.
For example, if you are their primary caregiver, you may choose to arrange Respite Care. This involves hiring professional Carers so that you can have a regular break away from the home. This is essential, especially when your loved one suffers from paranoia, as caregiving can be challenging and stressful. Our Carers visit your home to provide as much or as little help as you need, ensuring continuous care is maintained and you have peace of mind while you rest and recover.
If you need more regular care, there is a range of other care options available:
Visiting Home Care is available for as little or as much as you require. A Carer visits your elderly loved one’s home and can provide reassurance as well as practical help. This could involve anything from making meals or accompanying with your elderly loved one to helping them use the bathroom and getting ready for bed.
We offer a specific Dementia Care service, where our Carers can provide reassurance and provide a calming and reassuring presence if your loved one exhibits paranoid behaviour. Our Carers are always friendly and work hard to diffuse situations where a client may become irritable or aggressive.
Our Dementia Care service is provided by Carers in the comfort and familiarity of the home. They will help your loved one with their needs so they can live as independently as possible for as long as possible.
As dementia or psychosis develops, your elderly loved one’s care needs will increase. Live-in Care involves a Carer moving into the home to provide support throughout the day and night. This means you have round the clock reassurance, which is especially helpful if your elderly loved one is irritable or suffers from hallucinations during the night.
Our Carers can help pacify your loved one and discern between their genuine concerns and their paranoid beliefs. Our care is focused on maintaining dignity and always delivered with compassion.
Elderly paranoia can result in your loved one wandering about at night or even leave their home. This is obviously a dangerous and worrisome possibility and one that can be addressed by arranging a Waking Nights service.
With Waking Nights, one of our Carers stays awake through the night to watch your elderly loved one. They can help with using the bathroom in the late and early hours of the day, as well as providing reassurance if your loved one wakes up agitated from their sleep.
1. National Library of Medicine, “Treating Psychotic Symptoms in Elderly Patients“, Reviewed 14 November 2023
2. Alzheimer’s Association, “The incidence of dementia -related psychosis in people with dementia: Results from a survey of 302 U.S healthcare providers“, Reviewed 14 November 2023
3. NHS, “Mental Health in Older People: A Practice Primer“, Reviewed 14 November 2023
4. Pub Med, “Clinical issues in behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia“, Reviewed 14 November 2023
5. National Library of Medicine, “Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia“, Reviewed 14 November 2023
6. NHS, “Psychotic depression“, Reviewed 14 November 2023
7. NHS, “What is dementia“, Reviewed 14 November 2023