Understanding Challenging Behaviors Related to Dementia

March 17, 2021

Today, over fifty million people worldwide live with some form of dementia, and that number is expected to nearly triple in the next thirty years. Dementia causes a deterioration in cognitive function that is far more significant than what one may experience during the typical aging process. Dementia is not a disease but rather an umbrella term used to refer to a host of symptoms associated with damage to the brain cells. These symptoms most often include disorientation, significant memory loss, difficulty with word recall, and struggles with thinking and reasoning. Furthermore, some people living with dementia may begin exhibiting personality changes and challenging behaviors.

Not all people living with dementia will engage in challenging behaviors and will gradually move through forgetfulness into decreased awareness. It is likely, though, that if you are caring for a loved one with dementia, you will witness some one or more of the following challenging behaviors:

  • Physical or verbal aggression
  • Agitation in the form of restlessness, emotional distress, or pacing
  • Episodes of delusion that include a firmly held belief that things are not real
  • Hallucinations and claiming to see, hear, and feel things that are not there
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Random wandering, wandering from home, or getting lost
  • Withdrawal and apathy
  • Unprecedented hoarding

As you can imagine, these types of challenging behaviors are frustrating for both the person with dementia and their caregiver. It is important to note that, in most cases, the person living with dementia is not engaging in challenging behaviors to be difficult. Instead, these behaviors are often the person’s way of communicating that they are in distress or have a need that is not being met. If your loved one is behaving in a new and challenging manner, consider the following causes:

  • Could they be experiencing physical discomfort or illness?
  • Has their dementia progressed to a place that is causing increased confusion or paranoia?
  • Have their physical surroundings or living situation recently changed?
  • Is their environment either under or overstimulating them?
  • Has a change been made to their daily routine?

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe medication. However, one of the most effective ways in which a caregiver can keep challenging behaviors at bay while improving or maintaining cognitive function is by taking a non-pharmacological approach. This approach enables the person living with dementia to perform their usual activities and daily routines while addressing the behaviors instead of inhibiting them with medication. It is essential that a caregiver recognizes the behavior as a call for help and then determines how to make changes to resolve the unwanted behavior.

Caring for a loved one with dementia can be incredibly taxing and leave you feeling overwhelmed, tired, and burnt out. When challenging behaviors arise, you may find yourself feeling hurt or angry. It is important to remind yourself that your loved one’s actions result from their dementia and do not reflect how they feel about you.

If you are struggling to care for a loved one living with dementia or feel like your well-being is suffering, please talk with your doctor immediately.

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