This Ain’t Just About Memory: Dementia and the Senses (Part 2: Sight)

As you might now, I am currently focusing my blog posts on symptoms of dementia other than memory decline. This is the second in a series about how dementia might impact sensation and perception.

Today we focus on sight. (And, if some of this seems familiar to you, I’d like to thank you for being a loyal readers…I first published some of this content in 2016).

An entire book could be written about how dementia changes how an individual sees the world. I want to stress that dementia itself does nothing to impair the eyes. Dementia, however, does make it more difficult for the brain to interpret what the eyes see. It is the visual-perceptual system that becomes damaged.

Sometimes I will spend time with someone who has dementia and think that their words and actions make little sense. It is only later that I realize that they were making perfect sense considering their experience of the world. It’s just that their experience of the world and my experience of the world are different. And that’s the challenge.

A couple of years ago, I was doing an informal activity with a small group of nursing home residents when a woman with Alzheimer’s suddenly became very upset.

“Who is watching the children?” she kept asking me. “They are going to get hurt.”

I wasn’t sure what children she was referring to, but I tried to assure her that they were safe. She wasn’t having it.

“They are going to hit each other with that stick and no one will know,” she said. She was becoming agitated, so a staff member removed her from the activity. As she was walking down the hallway, she kept looking back at me and shouting about how I needed to care more about children.

As I wrapped up the activity about fifteen minutes later, I packed up my equipment and turned around to leave. I realized that there was a picture on the wall behind me. The picture was a large framed image of several small children playing baseball. One of the children was holding a bat.

At that point, I realized that this woman’s concern was valid based on how she was viewing the world. It was likely that she saw the picture behind me and thought it was a window. She thought there were children outside of that window playing baseball with no supervision. She saw the child holding a bat (or a “stick”) and was concerned that they were going to get hurt.

Instead of listening to her concern about the children, we had dismissed her and removed her from the situation. No wonder she was frustrated.

Sometimes people with dementia confuse pictures, especially larger ones, for real-life scenes or windows. I also find that they may misinterpret coat racks for people. I was recently asked if the man in the corner would be joining us for lunch. I looked to the corner to see a coat rack with a single coat hanging on it and a hat sitting on top. I told my friend with dementia that I thought that man had already eaten lunch.

Changes in the visual-perceptual system can impact eating. A person with dementia may not see mashed potatoes on a white plate. I know a woman with dementia who refused to eat a piece of lasagna (her favorite food) because she swore there were fleas on top of it. They were actually tiny oregano flakes, but her family could not convince her. She only ate it when they took away that piece and returned with a piece of lasagna with the oregano scraped off.

At a caregiving seminar recently, a woman told me about her husband who ended up in the hospital with dehydration. He had complained about thirst, but when she brought him water he didn’t drink it. She realized later that he couldn’t recognize that there was water in the glass, so he thought it was empty. Her solution to the problem? She added a very small amount of Crystal Light to the water so he could see the fluid in the glass.

Depth perception often becomes an issue with dementia. Again, it’s not that there’s necessarily a problem with the eyes. It’s that the brain struggles to make sense of what the eyes see. Compromised depth perception is often problematic when it comes to flooring. Rugs may look like holes in the floor. Someone might refuse to step onto a blue floor because they believe it’s water. A change in flooring surface may look like a large drop-off. Shiny flooring may appear wet or slippery. Sometimes people have a problem telling where the floor ends and wall begins. It can be helpful to paint the baseboards a contrasting color.

People with dementia might struggle with visual distractions. Keep in mind that the dementia brain has to work hard to interpret visual data. Trying to interpret too much at a time can lead to irritability and agitation. As strange as it might sound, someone might have difficulty focusing on the TV if there is a loud patterned wallpaper on the wall behind the TV. Visual “noise” can keep a person with dementia from being able to focus on what is important visual information. (And you can tell how I feel about wallpaper by my description of it as visual “noise.” On a related note, it takes several weeks to destroy that visual “noise” with chemicals and razor blades when you move into a house whose previous owners obviously found wallpaper quite pleasing.)

It’s important to remember that people are visual data. We know that sometimes people with dementia forget their loved ones or mistake them for others. They don’t recognize their daughter. Maybe they think their grandson is their son. Perhaps they think a nursing home staff member is their mother. Of course, much of this is due to compromised memory.

Sometimes, however, a person with dementia simply needs more time to process the visual image of a person. Let’s say you visit your grandma who has Alzheimer’s. Walk into the room. And then stop about four feet in front her. Just pause. Allow her to process you visually as a still (not moving) image. This gives her the best opportunity to recognize you, and–even if she doesn’t recognize you–she is less anxious as you move toward her. Just like you should give someone with dementia plenty of time to process a question after you ask it, you should give them plenty of time to process an image you put in front of them.

The more I work with people with dementia, the more I realize that their behavior makes sense if I can figure out how they see the world.

It’s just that figuring out how they see the world sometimes takes a bit of detective work.


5 thoughts on “This Ain’t Just About Memory: Dementia and the Senses (Part 2: Sight)

  1. A while back, my husband (who has early stage Alzheimer’s dementia) had a slight respiratory infection and had gone to bed very early that evening. I stayed up and around midnight, he got up and came to me in our office. He seemed disoriented and I suggested that he needed to get back in bed. As I guided him back to the bedroom via the living room, he stopped me, grabbing my arm and saying, “Did you clean this floor?” I looked at the floor (hardwood flooring throughout) and said, “No, why?” He stared at the floor and said, “There’s two piles of cat poop right there.” I looked but didn’t see anything. I told him to hold right there and went to turn on more lights. We looked together and didn’t see a thing. He’d hallucinated the idea that there was cat poop on the floor. To further clarify, we don’t own a cat, but the neighbor’s cat has adopted us as a second home, but she’s never done any messes in the house. When he saw that there wasn’t anything where he had originally thought there was, he muttered, “I could have sworn I saw it.” I didn’t question his position or demean him but rather told him it was o.k., and that he was sick and needed to be back in bed. We continued on to the bedroom and I tucked him back in bed. I never mentioned it again, but it shook me… now I wonder what he actually saw that night. Thanks for this …


  2. I found my mother’s visual misinterpretations the most difficult to empathize with. Lisa Geneva’s description of mail floating on a black hole in the book Still Alice helped me. I have MCI and have experiences several incidents. Because I can still recognize that what my brain is telling me I’m seeing is not logical, I can look intently, change my angle of approach, or touch the object to solve the puzzle. I wonder how long this stage will last.


  3. Your blogs have been very helpful in trying to understand this horrific illness. Going through it with my 89 yr old mom. Thank you!


  4. I’ve seen all people manifest some of the symptoms you describe. At the time I thought they was just confused. Now I see that they were experiencing visual overload. Looking back, I’m sorry I was so insensitive. Now that I think about it, I’ve been insensitive many times but was so out of ignorance. I hope I’ll behave better the next time I have the opportunity. Thank you for the lesson.


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