Image showing man angry at dementia

When someone we love is diagnosed with a form of dementia such as Alzheimer’s, it’s devastating for several reasons. Not least of course because we know that there’s no cure for this progressive disease and that we’ll have to deal with losing parts of the mind and personality of the person we love while they’re still alive.

The damage that is caused to the brain of someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia can affect the temperament and personality of someone who has spent their whole life being kind and gentle.

People who are living with dementia might lash out when they feel frustrated at not being able to clearly communicate, or when they feel angry, afraid, or are in pain or discomfort. An aggressive outburst from an adult who is confused and frightened can be scary.

They might lash out with their fists, swear, bite, kick out… and if you’re not a professional caregiver with experience of working with people who live with dementia – you are simply a relative caring for a loved one, for example – your instinct might be to argue or fight back, which will only make what is already a stressful and upsetting situation worse.

We’d like to share with you some of our tips for dealing with aggressive behaviour from someone who has dementia, in the hope that our knowledge and experience can make things a little easier for your family.

Be Prepared

This tip starts with a change of mindset. If a loved one who has dementia is behaving abusively towards you, either physically or verbally, remind yourself that it’s not personal.

It will be upsetting to experience that level of aggression from someone whom you love, and who loves you too, but remember, this is the behaviour of a sick person, not a nasty person. 

Aggressive outbursts and challenging behaviour are normal signs of dementia. Reminding yourself of that will help you to respond to the situation in a calm and supportive manner.

These types of episodes can be very shocking and upsetting when they happen, but it is the symptom of an illness; the behaviour of someone who is very ill – NOT a true reflection of how your loved one would act or speak to you if they were well.

Try To Identify Triggers

Aggressive outbursts from someone who is living with dementia are often triggered by fear, frustration, or pain.

For example, maybe someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s is yelling and screaming at people to get out – even if there’s no one there.

It could be that shadows in the room or dim light are making them think there is someone there, hiding. Imagine how frightening that must be!

Once you’ve identified this trigger you’ll be able to do something about it – keep rooms well lit and make sure that lights are on before evening falls.

Another example could be that you approach your elderly loved one from behind, without thinking, and startle them. Feeling threatened, they may lash out in what they feel is self-defence.

Again, this isn’t indicative of them as a person, it’s merely a symptom of an illness, and so be mindful when approaching someone who has dementia so as not to surprise or frighten them.

Rule Out If They Are In Pain

Someone who has dementia – particularly in the more advanced stages – might not be able to communicate if they are experiencing discomfort. This could cause your loved one to behave aggressively due to being frustrated and in pain.

If they live with a condition such as arthritis, check if they need pain medication. Check too that they are sitting in a comfortable seat, or if they need to use the toilet perhaps – we all appreciate how uncomfortable that can be!

Be Gentle And Reassuring

Of course, it goes without saying that elderly members of our society are grown adults who should be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, not treated like children. However, when someone is living with a condition such as Alzheimer’s and becomes aggressive, the gentle, reassuring tones that we use with the youngest members of our family can provide comfort and stop a situation from escalating.

Becoming upset or arguing back can escalate tense emotions, so staying calm and positive is of paramount importance.

Frustrating though the situation may be, becoming angry won’t do either of you any good, and in fact, will likely just make it worse.

Keep The Environment Calm

Too much noise and activity going on around a person who has dementia can sometimes trigger aggressive behaviour.

Be mindful of what is going on around them if they start becoming angry or abusive. Make sure that the TV or radio is turned down, that people aren’t speaking too loudly or making sudden sounds – and ask them to leave the room if necessary.

It could be that something as simple as calming and quieting the environment could stop the situation from escalating.

Try Their Favourite Music To Shift Their Focus

Research has shown time and time again that music can have an amazing effect on mood, particularly for those who have a condition such as Alzheimer’s.

Playing an elderly loved one’s favourite music or songs from an era when they were younger might evoke happy memories and have a soothing effect.

People with dementia are often still able to recall the tunes and lyrics to songs they used to love, and it could help shift focus from a situation that’s causing agitation or frustration to play something they can sing along to and enjoy.

Validate Their Feelings

Every human being wants to have their feelings validated, young or old, and for someone with dementia, this is just as important.

It could be that the condition is making it very difficult to express feelings of loneliness, sadness or frustration, and so it’s all coming out as aggression.

In this situation, look for clues as to how they may be feeling: Consider speaking to your loved one in a calm and comforting way. Let them know that it’s ok to feel the way that they do, and that you’re there to help in any way that you can.

Older people in our community, and our families, are to be cherished – they have done everything before us and have experienced some things we likely never will….they have been our carers, our teachers, our protectors, and when the times comes to give something back and care for them, it can be just as frustrating and frightening (and rewarding!), for us as it was for them when we needed taking care of.

At Care In Kent we are highly skilled in the field of dementia care, and we offer a range of at home care services, from respite care to help with the weekly shop.

If you want to know more about how we can help you to take care of someone that you love, please get in touch with a member of our dedicated team.