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When Tempers Flare

Often the person with dementia will seem more irritable than usual, or become angry or even aggressive over something that may seem trivial.  This is especially hard for caregivers, who may find it hard to watch their usually easy-going and affectionate loved one suddenly yelling and even striking out in anger.

One important thing to remember is that the person most likely is not behaving this way on purpose.  As the dementia progresses, the brain has a harder time processing information, both from within the person’s own body and from the environment.  There may be a lack of understanding of what is heard, or seen, or even smelled.  And the person may have trouble controlling her emotions, or have trouble telling what is wrong.

For the most part, you should consider that the behavior is an attempt to communicate that something is wrong.  It is important to try to figure out just what has caused the behavior.  Here are some possible things to consider:

  1.  Is the person in pain?  Often the person with dementia is unable to articulate, or even to identify for themselves, that they are in pain.
  2. Is she suffering from a lack of sleep?
  3. Could she be feeling some ill effects from medications?  Often these folks are taking a number of different medications, which may interact with each other in negative ways.
  4. Is the person being over-stimulated by loud noises, or too much going on around them?  Remember that it takes these folks longer to process environmental information, and they may do so inadequately.
  5. Does she feel lost?
  6. Perhaps she functions better at a particular time of day.  Often people with dementia tend to get more confused later in the day, for various reasons.
  7. Are your instructions easy to understand?  Are you giving the person time to process what you are saying?
  8. Is she picking up on your own stress?

Here are some things you can do to help relieve the situation:

  1.  Try to identify the immediate cause.  What happened right before the problem behavior?
  2. Make sure that the person is not in pain.
  3. Focus on what the person is feeling, not what she is doing.
  4. Stay calm.  It won’t help for you to get upset as well.
  5. Limit distractions in the environment.
  6. Try a relaxing activity like massage, soft music, or a walk in the garden.
  7. Get the person to focus on something else.
  8. Reduce the immediate danger level.  Be sure there isn’t any way for the person to hurt herself.
  9. Avoid using restraint or force.  She may actually fight harder, and do you or herself physical harm.

When it’s all over, step back and take a deep breath.  Try to figure out what caused the outburst, and if possible change the environment or situation so that it doesn’t occur again.  And then have a hot bath, or a soothing cup of cocoa, and pat yourself on the back.

(Information adapted from the Alzheimer’s Association)

  1. July 4, 2012 at 1:42 AM

    I think this is a great message. I lived with my grandma, who has dementia and Alzheimer’s for over a year. All I can say is that I have many, many stories about the ups and downs. You can check them out here:



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