Coping with Aggressive Behavior

February 24, 2015

“Dealing with Dad’s dementia is hard enough. But now he’s having these flare-ups of anger that are almost scary – I’m not sure I’m comfortable being alone with him.”

Sound familiar? It’s estimated that more than one third of dementia sufferers exhibit aggressive behavior – particularly in the condition’s moderate-to-severe stages. These actions can be verbal – swearing, making threats, shouting, screaming – or even physical – pinching, hitting, throwing things, biting.

So what causes this change in temperament? Reasons vary, and can include:

  • Physical causes, such as pain from undiagnosed conditions like urinary tract infections, or constipation; side-effects from medication, including taking them improperly; poor eyesight or hearing
  • Psychological factors, including frustration at not being able to perform simple tasks; frustration and not being able to express themselves; depression, or other mental illness; feeling threatened at strange or unfamiliar surroundings, like a new doctor’s office; misunderstanding someone’s intentions – for ex, becoming agitated at a caregiver’s attempt to help with dressing or bathing
  • Social conditions, like loneliness; boredom; sudden changes in routine; not liking or trusting a caregiver

To prevent aggressive behavior, it’s important to try and pinpoint its cause. First, rule out any treatable physical causes by consulting their doctor and scheduling the proper diagnostic tests. Then ask yourself: when and where does the behavior usually start? Who are the other people involved – is it always with the same caregiver or community member? You may see commonalities or patterns emerging that can help you isolate the behavioral triggers and successfully prevent a problem.

But when an unpleasant scene does happen, above all, stay calm, and try not to take things personally. You will feel frustrated and stressed, no doubt – but reacting that way will only fuel the fire and potentially escalate matters. Step out of the room if you need to take a moment, or alert a staff member for help.

Reassure mom or dad, and try to acknowledge their feelings. Maintain eye contact and try to explain calmly what’s going on and why. If there isn’t a compelling reason to continue with whatever’s triggered the aggression, consider just dropping what you’re doing and picking things up later.

No matter what, your physical safety and that of your loved is most important. So resist the urge to offend mom or dad and engage the help you need for both of you to stay safe. Consult whomever you have in place – assisted living staff, doctors, and social workers – to help you both avoid future incidents and successfully handle them when they do crop up.