The Stressful Side of Caregiving

Understanding Aggressive Behaviors Related to Dementia

March 24, 2022

It’s estimated that more than one-third of those living with dementia exhibit aggressive behavior. This is particularly true for those in the condition’s moderate-to-severe stages. Your loved one may become verbally aggressive and swear, make threats, shout, and scream. Sometimes, a person living with dementia may even get physically aggressive and will pinch, hit, throw things, or bite.

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

  • Physical Causes: including pain from undiagnosed conditions like urinary tract infections or constipation, side-effects from medication, poor eyesight, or hearing.
  • Psychological Factors: including frustration at not being able to perform simple tasks, frustration from not being able to express themselves, depression, other mental illness, feeling threatened by strange or unfamiliar surroundings, or misunderstanding someone’s intentions.
  • Social Conditions: including loneliness, boredom, sudden changes in routine, and 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 a 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 to help you isolate the behavioral triggers and successfully prevent a problem.

But when an unpleasant scene does happen, stay calm and try not to take things personally. You will feel frustrated and stressed but reacting negatively will fuel the fire and potentially escalate matters. Step out of the room if you need to take a moment or ask somebody else for help.

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

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

How can we help?