One of the most difficult aspects of being a caregiver is having to cope with aggressive or other challenging behaviors that the person you care for exhibits. Other examples of challenging actions includes hallucinations, verbal abuse, anger, running away, taking clothes off, swearing, agitation, lack of appreciation. One of the secrets is that as a caregiver your response is a key on managing them and can influence the future reoccurrence.

The first thing to do is understand why these behaviors are occurring. The answer lies in 3 areas for people with dementia. People react in this way because of fear, confusion, and pain. They feel helpless or afraid and react to protect themselves. The first thing to do as a caregiver when these difficult behaviors erupt is take a step back and try to understand what is happening that is triggering them.

Dementia directly impacts the brain. It causes people to act in uninhibited, unfiltered ways. It directly impacts our ability to think, find words, or control feelings or what we do. It causes confusion. Take a moment and imagine what that would be like for you. It also tends to exacerbate the personality traits the person had prior to the onset of the dementia.  If you were a mean person before your diagnosis, those men traits may come out in a more intensified way as your condition worsens.

As caregivers we have to remember that people suffering from dementia still need to be respected. They want their wishes to be considered. They also want to feel they have some control over their environment. What may be surprising is sometimes they even regret these negative behaviors. They might not be able to express those feelings but it is important for caregivers to be aware they are there.

Caregivers can do some things to help manage these incidents when they occur:

  • Try to identify the cause of this behavior. Why are they reacting this way? What are they afraid of? What are they feeling? Try to make sense out of the reaction of a loved one.
  • Respond in a calm and comforting manner. Don’t argue. That will trigger more aggression. Don’t force the issue to prove you are right and they are wrong. Nobody will win that battle. Remember your body language. Smile and appear relaxed. Use direct eye contact. Be aware of the tone of your voice and the messages you are sending both conscious and unconscious.
  • Take a moment and imagine not knowing where you are. People often become combative and want to leave a place because they don’t recognize where they are. Try to gently redirect the confused person. Play a favorite song, go for a walk, take out a photo album. Use pictures or other concrete, tangible cues to help them focus and understand where they are at and why they are there. Keep your responses simple and direct. Say something to acknowledge their feelings like “I know it is confusing”, or “we can’t go now because it is very late or it is pouring rain” or whatever makes sense for you. Think about a response that will help them feel safe, cared for, and gets to the root of their fear.
  • Pay attention to patterns of behavior. Do these episodes occur at a particular time    regularly?  Some people experience sundowner syndrome where they get more confused as it gets dark.  Did something happen to trigger these episodes? What happened before they got agitated?
  • Look at the environment. Is there too much noise or stimulation? Is it too hot or too cold? Are there certain people that seem to upset the person receiving the care? Is being in a new place problematical and perhaps confusing?
  • Validate their feelings. Be understanding about what they are trying to communicate even if it is difficult to perceive. Try to collaborate rather than confront the person you are taking care of. If you overtly challenge what is being said or express doubt about it that can trigger an angry episode.
  • Become a master of distraction.  Try to use distraction as a technique to manage negative episodes and outbursts. Think about their favorite foods, hobby, music, photographs, clothing, or television show. Sometimes talking about people they like can ease the tension. Pay attention to what works and have it on stand by when a new outburst occurs.

 

This is very hard but also very important: Try to separate the person from the disease.

Dementia damages the brain and so people experiencing it are unable to control their thoughts, actions, feelings, and behavior as a result. Try not to personalize the negative interactions. Set boundaries for yourself and the person receiving care regarding physical safety. You cannot permit violent behavior that might potentially harm you or the person you are caring for. If this happens consult a physician about how to manage this issue. Take a time out for yourself if you need it. You must take care of yourself as a caregiver. That may be the most important tip of all.

About Iris Waichler

Iris Waichler has been a patient advocate and licensed clinical social worker for 40 years. She is an award winning author. Her latest book, Role Reversal How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents received a Finalist Best Book of 2016 Award from USA Books. Ms. Waichler has done individual, group and family counseling with patients and families facing catastrophic illnesses. She has done freelance writing on health and patient advocacy topics for 16 years.

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