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The Dreams and Night Terrors of Dementia

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Gary Joseph LeBlanc, Director of Education

Dementia Spotlight Foundation

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with someone very close to me. (This friend requested anonymity.) He wanted to discuss the odd dreams he has experienced since he began living with dementia. First, he explained in great detail how difficult it is for him to differentiate between dreams and reality. Next, he proceeded to describe his most recent haunting dream which had him confused and concerned. In this nightmare, he was extremely upset he had left his oven turned on for two and a half days. What troubled him the most was . . . was it truly a dream? He claims the only way he’ll absolutely know for sure is when his electric bill arrives in the mail and he tries to figure it out by doing the math.

I have no doubt, when living with dementia, one’s dreams become exceptionally vivid. Just by this man’s facial expressions I could tell how surreal this dream was to him and how bewildered it had left him. He emphatically explained to me this used to be a rare occurrence but now it’s as common as putting on his shoes.

Experience has taught me all dementia-related diseases will cause problems discerning between reality and dreams, leading to an assortment of sleep disorders.

For instance, a common symptom attached to Lewy Body dementia is night terrors, mainly brought on by REM Sleep Disorder. It is common for patients to hallucinate and act out their nightmares in their sleep by kicking, punching and sometimes even screaming for hours. I have several close friends living with this disease and a common description from them is they feel as if they just fought through a 10-round boxing match. They wake up completely confused, exhausted and suffering from body aches. Tranquil nights are rare for those with Lewy Body. Many have said, “I’m afraid to lie down at night because I know what’s coming.”

A few years back, I was the keynote speaker at a dementia seminar in Wisconsin. During my presentation, I invited a friend I knew was living with Lewy Body (and is a member of Dementia Mentors) to join me and speak to the crowd. He stood up and asked those in attendance, “Have you ever seen the movie Chucky?” He astonished everyone by stating, “The doll portrayed in that movie is what I see running around my house, awake or not.”

We now know these night terrors may actually begin around 10 years prior to diagnosis, even before any signs of cognitive issues present themselves.

So, if you witness your sleep partner exhibiting signs of these terrors, don’t be surprised if dementia shows up on his or her horizon. It is essential for the primary physician to be notified of this history immediately, possibly preventing a misdiagnosis which could lead to improper medical care.