The difference between genuine end-of-life experiences and drug-induced hallucinations is clear to nursing staff and to patients.
People who have drug-induced hallucinations will describe such things as the wall-paper moving, the carpet undulating, insects crawling up walls, strange animals walking around on the floor, or devils or dragons dancing in the light,
They may ‘pluck’ at their sheets or at the air, and shiver. These hallucinations are generally experienced as annoying rather than frightening, and doctors can generally control them with medication.
In contrast,people who have end-of-life experiences, such as deathbed visions, seem to be calmed and soothed by them. They appear to help the person to let go of the physical world and overcome their fear of dying.
What should I do if my relative is having – or not having – an end-of-life experience?
These end-of-life experiences are real to those who have them. Listen to them without judgment or dismissal. It is important to remember that this is something they are actually experiencing, and it is not for us say whether it is authentic or imagined.
It is crucial that the dying person’s reality is supported. Practice your listening skills to help your relative or friend know you really care about what is happening to them, and that you are willing to hear about it.
Tell them how much it means to you to know they are being reassured, even if you are unable to physically share their visions.
Put any disbelief or prejudices aside, and truly listen. Help them by asking questions such as ‘What does he/she look like? Who is here? How many have come to see you?’
If your relative or friend is not having this kind of end-of-life experience, that doesn’t mean they are having a ‘bad death’.
We don’t and can’t completely know what goes on in the mind of dying person, or what they may be experiencing while asleep, confused, or in a deep coma. Reaching out a caring hand is very reassuring, as well as quietly saying loving words of farewell.
It is also important to know that some people become distressed by seeing end-of-life visions. If this happens, tell the nursing staff, and they will provide medication to help relax and soothe the person
What happens if my relative or friend has dementia?
Dementia or severe cognitive impairment is a growing issue in the elderly. More than 100,000 people die with dementia in England and Wales each year. Research suggests the overall prevalence of dementia in those over the age of 65 is about 5%.
The impact dementia has on the dying process can be confusing and alarming. It can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to reach the person, or understand what they are saying or what they may want.
However, we have come across many reports of those with severe dementia suddenly become lucid enough to say farewell to those around them, or talk coherently about seeing dead relatives.
So, don’t dismiss everything they say as disjointed ramblings. And, be available in case this person does return to clarity and wants to make a final connection.