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Coping with the behavioural changes of dementia

Being verbally or physically attacked by an older adult with dementia comes as a shock. Even more so when the person you love or care for has shown no past history of violence. Yet aggression is a known symptom of dementia. In fact, it’s incredibly common. Find out why and how you can cope with it.

 

Dementia changes a person

When dementia sets in, it can change the way a person behaves in extraordinary ways. An older adult may start to shout or swear at you or scream repetitively which is deeply upsetting. Dementia patients can also cause physical harm by biting, scratching, kicking or hitting other people.

Understandably, relatives often find it difficult to accept aggressive outbursts. However, it’s important to understand that this kind of behaviour is a side effect of the illness. It can happen for all manner of reasons:

  • Medical. Your relative is in pain or feels unwell.
  • Emotional. They are frightened or confused.
  • Environment. Perhaps the room is too cold or too bright.
  • Social. Your loved one is lonely or bored.
  • Personal. They want to use the toilet or have a wash.

It’s common for older people with dementia to react to these situations in a more explosive way, as they often have no free will to change them.  

What’s more, dementia can cause hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. Add to this memory loss and the inability to recognise people, even their own children, and the world can be a terrifying place for someone with dementia. It’s no wonder they sometimes lash out in response.

 

How to handle aggression

When you come under attack, it’s important to make eye contact with your loved one and listen patiently to what they say. Look for clues as to what might have triggered it.

Did you buy flowers for the room but they dislike the potent smell of lilies? Do they need a cushion for their chair or is it near a draft? Work out what your relative can see, hear and smell, then adapt their surroundings to suit them as an individual. Making a few key changes to their environment or even their schedule can help avoid aggressive outbursts.

Distraction is also a common technique to use. For example, if you know your relative becomes agitated by a particular noise, try putting the radio on to help distract them.

Physical attacks. Move out of harm’s way and remove any objects that could be used as a weapon. Unless they are in danger, try not to restrain the older person as this could make things worse.

Verbal attacks. Try not to shout back or argue in retaliation. If you look angry or raise your voice, it can fuel fear in your loved one. Try counting to ten before you respond or leave the room if you need to. 

As you care for your loved one, look after yourself too. Vent your own frustrations to a friend or your GP. If you need a break, it’s okay to ask someone to step in to help you. You’re important too.

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