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The Bristal Assisted Living Blog

Posted by The Bristal  |  December 5, 2014

Alzheimer’s Aggression: 8 Tips for Defusing Aggressive Behavior


A recent study of residents moving into memory care communities revealed some interesting information. Despite the fact that more women are being diagnosed with dementia, men are moving into memory care assisted living communities at a rate that is 14% faster than women.

The study looked at seniors who moved between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2014. They found that when men need memory care services, 8% of the time it is because of wandering and 30% due to problems with aggression. Both can be challenging behaviors for family caregivers to try to manage at home. Defusing aggressive behavior can be especially difficult.

Understanding Aggressive Behavior and Anger Associated with Dementia

Anger and aggression in a person living with Alzheimer’s disease 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 extremely angry outburst might be something different all together.

Alzheimer’s experts often refer to these episodes as a “catastrophic reaction.” It simply means that because of the damage the disease causes to the brain, the person with dementia is unable to control how they react to everyday feelings and challenges. The resulting behavior might be their only way to express feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Some of the more common triggers of aggression include:

• Sensory overload: 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 the possible source of aggression.

• Lack of sleep: Because sleep patterns are disrupted for people with Alzheimer’s, fatigue can be a cause of aggressive behavior. Even though their body is physically exhausted, someone with Alzheimer’s still might not be able to sleep.

• Medication side effects: Problems with medications might also be the source of the problem. 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 angry outbursts.

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 the top eight tips from the experts at the Alzheimer’s Association:

1. Look for the feelings behind the outburst. Does your loved one appear to be frustrated? Are they grimacing in a manner that might suggest they are in pain? Try to get to the underlying issue so you can resolve it. That will likely help 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 and it will only escalate their feelings.

3. Reduce the environmental stimulations. If the television is going, the kids are running around making noise and the dog is barking, that 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 down in to smaller steps. Since someone living with dementia may be unable to access the parts of their memory that allow them to complete everyday activities, break the tasks down in to more manageable amounts. Instead of just telling a senior loved one to “get dressed,” find ways to make it easier for them to do so. Laying their clothing out on the bed in the order needed will allow them to dress independently without being frustrated by an inability to remember how.

5. Develop a daily routine that supports their best and worst times of day. Many adult children and family caregivers find mornings to be the best time of day for their loved one with dementia. Keeping activities and outings to those hours and allowing your senior loved one to wind down in the afternoon or evening might help keep them from becoming overstimulated and over tired.

6. Try to redirect their attention to another activity. If they are angry because it is 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. Keeping a journal in which you document the events surrounding their outbursts 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 cooped up and frustrated from being stuck indoors all day.

8. Finally, learning how to manage your own reactions can help when your aging parent or loved one becomes aggressive. Taking deep breaths, staying calm, and not rushing or pressuring your loved one will help.

We hope this information can help you find ways to reduce and manage your loved one’s anger and aggression.