Aggression is one of the worst parts of caring for a parent or senior loved one with dementia, but you’re not powerless. Having a number of strategies on hand to deploy whenever you need them gives you the means to handle a loved one’s aggression any time it rears its head.
Learn more about how to cope with aggression and dementia.
Making the situation even worse for many caregivers and families, a parent or senior loved one’s aggression may seem to come out of nowhere. “This is likely a significant personality change for the patient and the family members are often upset because of it,” says licensed psychologist, Dr. Ashley Hampton.
When someone you love that’s never been aggressive before suddenly starts having outbursts, it can be terrifying. You don’t just want to know how to respond in the moment, you need to learn what you can do to keep it from happening again.
Fortunately, dementia and mental health experts offer a number of recommendations for ways to cope with aggression when it arises and even better, take steps to prevent them altogether:
In some cases, unseen physical discomfort can be the cause of the problem, but in others, it could be more obvious irritants in the atmosphere, like too much stimulus from noise or the number of people in a room.
If you can find anything in the atmosphere that may be causing a loved one to feel agitated, remove the irritant from the space to see if that helps.
The last thing you want to do is add to a parent or senior loved one’s confusion or irritation. Make sure you communicate with them in a calm and clear manner.
Dr. David A. Merrill of the Providence St. John’s Health Center advises, “Communicating in direct and simple language also helps. Break down tasks into simple steps. Don’t expect too much or overwhelm loved ones with complex requests.”
Having a consistent routine can remove some of the uncertainty in a loved one’s life. Katie DeCicco of Celebration Saunas explains, “Throughout life, we count on our habits, they make us feel safe. The less control you have over your daily life, the more important consistency is.”
Figure out a consistent time of day for having meals, scheduling doctor’s visits, taking medication, etc.
This tip can be important for both you and a parent or senior loved one with dementia. First things first, it may be necessary for your own safety.
“Giving the parent or senior loved one their space if they begin to show signs of aggression or frustration can also help prevent fits of rage or violence. Taking a minute to regroup and return to the situation gives you space to decompress the nerves before re-addressing the issue,” says GinaMarie Guarino, mental health counselor.
Sometimes what seems to be the issue is really a symptom of another, underlying problem. If your loved one is experiencing physical discomfort but isn’t sure how to tell you (or is too embarrassed to), their agitation could turn into aggression. Dr. Beatrice Tauber Prior of Harborside Wellbeing explains, “There are many illnesses (i.e. a urinary tract infection or UTI) that can lead to an increase in aggressive behaviors.”
“If you notice that the usual things that work to calm your loved one are not working, make an appointment to see their medical professional to rule out a physical reason/illness that may be causing the aggressive behaviors,” she recommends.
If you can get a parent or senior loved one focused on something apart from what upset them, you may be able to redirect them from the negative emotions they were feeling.
Lindsey Knudsen, director of moderate stage programs at the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation, suggests pulling “out something that is comforting. Alternatively, ask them for help with another project, such as folding laundry… or offer to ‘go for a walk’ with the person. Even if it’s just to the backyard, a change of scenery can make a world of difference.”
“Think about the specific emotion underlying the aggression,” suggests Dr. Tauber Prior. “No matter how far away from reality their perception is, begin with what they perceive the situation to be. Scott Knoll, director of By Your Side Home Care adds, “More than anything, we see clients who become aggressive because they are frustrated with their own memory loss. To minimize their violence, first minimize their confusion.”
If your loved one’s aggression is caused by confusion, taking time to ask them questions about what they’re feeling and really listen to what they’re saying can go a long way to figuring out what they need to hear to feel better about the situation.
In what other ways do you cope with aggression and dementia? We’d like to hear your stories and tips in the comments below.