The Bristal Assisted Living Blog

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Alzheimer’s Aggression: 8 Tips for Defusing Aggressive Behavior

Anger and aggression in individuals living with dementia can be the result of a variety of different triggers. 

They can range from physical pain to frustration and overstimulation. It is also important to note that for people with dementia, behaviors are often exaggerated. What might appear to be an angry outburst might be something different altogether.

If you’re caring for someone with dementia who’s exhibiting anger or aggression, read on for information and advice.

Understanding Aggressive Behavior and Anger Associated with Dementia

Alzheimer’s experts often refer to these episodes as a “catastrophic reaction.” Because of the damage the disease causes to the brain, a person with dementia is unable to control how they react to everyday feelings and challenges. 

The resulting behavior might be the only way to express feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Additional common triggers of aggression include:

  • Overstimulation: Loud noises, a busy environment, and unfamiliar people or surroundings might be the cause. A person with Alzheimer’s disease can have difficulty processing all that is going on around them.
  • Physical pain: Another common trigger is pain. Because communication skills are often impacted by Alzheimer’s disease, the person might not be able to express that they are hurting. Infections, arthritis, constipation, and other health conditions common among seniors should be investigated as a possible source of aggression.
  • Lack of sleep: Because sleep patterns are disrupted for people with Alzheimer’s, fatigue can be a factor in aggressive behavior. Even though their body is physically exhausted, someone with Alzheimer’s still might not be able to sleep.
  • Medication side effects: Medications might also be the source of aggressive behavior in your loved one. Drug interactions, side effects, and adverse reactions become more common in older adults because of the way the body processes medications as we age.
  • Poor communication: Frustration with communication or how a caregiver is talking to them can also trigger aggression. Asking too many questions and giving them directions that are too complicated to follow can both trigger outbursts.
    Father with dementia holds son’s hands

How to Defuse Aggressive Behavior Caused by Alzheimer’s

What can an adult child or family caregiver do to calm a senior loved one and defuse their anger?

Here are top tips, according to the experts at the Alzheimer’s Association:

1. Look for the feelings behind the outburst. 

Does your loved one appear to be frustrated? Does their facial expression suggest they’re in pain? Try to get to the underlying issue so you can resolve it. Doing so will likely reduce or eliminate their aggressive behavior.

2. Slowly approach your loved one from the front so they can see you coming. 

Stay calm and speak to them in a slow, soft tone. It might be difficult to do when confronted by an angry loved one, but it will help to defuse the situation. Don’t respond with agitation or irritation. They can pick up on those emotions, which will only escalate their feelings.

3. Reduce environmental stimulations.

If the TV is on, children or pets are making noise, and the phone is ringing, it can all add up to too much stimulation for a person with Alzheimer’s. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible.

4. Break tasks into smaller steps.

Since someone with dementia may be unable to access the parts of their memory that allow them to complete everyday activities, break the tasks down into more manageable pieces.

For example, instead of telling a loved one to “get dressed,” find ways to make it easier for them to do. You might lay their clothing out on the bed in the correct order. This will allow them to dress independently without being frustrated by an inability to remember how.

Senior woman holding coffee cup at breakfast table

5. Develop a daily routine that supports their best and worst times of the day.

Many adult children and family caregivers find mornings to be the best time of day for their loved one with dementia. 

Keep activities and outings to those hours and allow them to wind down in the afternoon or evening. This might prevent them from becoming overstimulated and overtired.

6. Try to redirect their attention to another activity.

If they are upset because it’s raining and they can’t go outside, find a different task for them to do. 

Ask if they would mind folding a basket of towels or dusting the living room for you. This might help to refocus their attention by giving them something meaningful to do.

7. Keep a journal to document the events surrounding their outbursts.

This might help you spot a pattern you wouldn’t otherwise recognize. If you notice, for example, your loved one seems angrier on the days you don’t take them for a walk, it might be because they feel frustrated from being indoors all day.

8. Learn how to manage your own reactions. 

Staying calm can help when your aging parent or loved one becomes aggressive. Taking deep breaths and not rushing or pressuring your loved one will help.

More Resources for Dementia Caregivers

Browse our extensive list of articles for more tips and resources for dementia caregivers. You’ll find information to help you care for yourself and your loved one from the experts at The Bristal.

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