Managing Contentious Behaviors in Loved Ones with Dementia

Most people think of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as a brain disease. While dementia attacks the brain, the disease also brings a myriad of other symptoms including personality changes. These behaviors can include extreme anger and even violence, which can, in turn, create additional caregiver stressManaging Contentious Behaviors in Loved Ones with Dementia

Learn more about behavioral changes in Alzheimer’s and how to manage contentious behaviors in loved ones with dementia to keep the peace.

Dementia and Personality Changes

While dementia is a neurodegenerative disorder, most caregivers would agree that the disease attacks the entire person, not just their brain or their memory. The changes in personality are largely due to the fact that Alzheimer’s actually kills brain cells, decreasing cognitive ability.

In addition to the disease, some medications used to treat other symptoms can cause behavior changes. These destructive behaviors can cause severe stress for the caregiver.

While every dementia diagnosis is unique in its progression, these personality changes are usually seen in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s and manifest themselves in several ways including repetitive or compulsive behavior, delusions and suspicions. In some cases, personality changes can be seen earlier and even be a sign of the early stages of dementia.

Ways to Manage Contentious Behavior and Create Peace

Marie Marley, award winning author of “Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy” recently shared how she coped with her husband’s difficult behaviors as a result of his dementia with the Huffington Post.

In the article, she opened up about his personality changes which came early, before an actual diagnosis. He became angry, drinking more often, and emotionally abusive. In an effort to get him help, she asked her friend who is a geriatric social worker for advice. The advice she received worked to ease the anger and the fights:

  1. Avoid topics that you think will upset your loved one.
  2. Change the topic, if your loved one becomes agitated.
  3. Do not argue with your loved one. Agree with everything they say, even if it doesn’t make sense.

Marley admits that following this advice was harder than it sounded and she would often forget to follow them but that when she did, her husband’s anger was mitigated. She says:

“When I finally mastered all three strategies, the results were dramatic. The number of nasty arguments decreased significantly and our closeness returned to its former state, which was a blessing after so many months of constant unbearable bickering.”

What do you think about the advice Marley received? Has it worked for your relationship with your loved one? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • 419er

    I found this article while I was searching for a different topic – but the search has the same words in it. In my case, the question isn’t about my mom getting angry – it’s about me getting angry at her. I know the flaw is in me somewhere, but I feel like I need a means to think about this whole situation differently. She asks me a question – pick a question – any question: how about “is your daughter still dating the same guy? what was his name?” and she turns away to look at the TV a second after I answer, as if she doesn’t even really care about the answer. Then, a week later, same question, and the next week, and the next week.

    I end up getting angry because I feel like she’s just not paying attention to me, or so self-absorbed she doesn’t remember anything that isn’t about her.

    So I don’t know if this is just self-centeredness, or dementia. All I know is that I need someone to help me find a framework in which this doesn’t piss me off every time it happens.

    • Leslie Kernisan, MD

      It’s probably her dementia. You’ll need to remember it’s the disease doing it, not her, but it’s much easier said than done.
      I would encourage you to find some kind of counseling or support program to help you practice constructive ways of coping with this feeling.
      Also, UCSF is now recruiting dementia caregivers for a study, in which they train the caregivers to have more positive emotions. It’s called LEAF (Life Enhancing Activities for Family Caregivers) and you can learn about it at If you’re a fit, it’s free high quality coaching, which is great to find.

    • Ivonne Wheelock

      Wow this question is from 2 years ago but I would like to just say, try not to get mad at her. I went through my father’s Alzheimer and , I used to get mad, take things personal, etc. But when you realize your not dealing with a normal person, you cease to argue or take things personal. My advice, be compassionate, she is simply not having the mental capacity to focus or wait for an answer. Getting angry will not help her in this respect. Maybe you can gently tell her or ask her to listen to you. But never angry. I know easier said than done, me I gotten angry handful of times . But ever since he passed away, all those times I extended myself, had patience and gentleness with him are a treasure. Try to think of yourself if your in a situation where you cannot do something or are too confused or agitated to do something, someone yelling or getting angry *usually* is not gonna help.

  • Glennda

    it can be difficult to accept what is going on. My mother i verbally abusive to my brother who is her main care giver. At what point does one allow this to continue, as it has strained the relationship –he is trying so hard, but she continues to floor him with terrible language towards him. When she passes someday, he will have un favorable memories that could hurt him year from now.

    • Doris

      I am with you on this… My mom is so abusive to my dad and my older sister… Basically whoever spends more time with her.. My biggest fear is that when she dies all our sweet memories of our sweet mother will be replaced by this angry woman she has become…

    • Mary Elizabeth VanSchoonhoven

      I can say that you have to know.That your Mom’s mind is not her. It is the disease that affects her mind. Try to remember what upsets her. And no matter what agree with her even if she is wrong in your eye’s.What ever ge ts get upset change the whole story. To a good memory that y’all shared. I pray my words can help. God bless y’all.

  • Betty Gray

    My husband was always verbally abisive, I’ve been in the hospital twice for non-stop vomiting. Now he is getting impossible to be around. Where I’ve kept my items for 20 yrs of our marriage, he now wants that place, either frig or cabinet. Said my soap on sink had to go it in his way. Every nite he stacks several things in front of my coffee maker for me to move first thing. Just constantly irrating. Thinks all his friends are wrong because he’s the only one that know right. His language has got more vulgar. He can’t remember words to put a sentence together. He tells me and everyone else everything we do is our fault. Can’t take much more, he is totally self centered.

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