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Living With Alzheimer's >> Behavior Basics | 04.24.15

Aggression: a challenging behavior to cope with

A loved one with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia can quickly and unexpectedly grow angry, seemingly without motivation. They may shout, curse, make sarcastic or cruel remarks, or even threaten physical harm.

The target of their anger isn’t always someone else. They may take out their aggression on the nearest object, resulting in slammed doors, trashed rooms, or broken mirrors or windows.

Sometimes their frustration causes them to hurt themselves by hitting, scratching, pulling their hair, burning themselves or falling to the floor. And when asked to cooperate, they may kick, slap, hit, pinch or spit at those trying to help.

Responding to these kinds of outbursts can be stressful for everyone involved in the person’s care. In these cases, it’s important to stay calm and never return anger with anger.

Why is this happening?

A person with dementia lives in a strange and confusing world where everyday situations may be difficult to process and understand. Frustration and anger are their manifestations of this fear of the unknown.

When communication and language difficulties are present, the situation becomes even more frustrating for the person.  When they cannot communicate their needs—especially if they are in pain—they can lash out to express their discomfort.

Helping a person with intimate needs, like bathing and going to the bathroom, may make them anxious or fearful. When a loved one is also suffering from symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations, these conditions can serve to provoke aggressive behavior.

How should you respond?

Always stay calm in the face of aggressive behaviors and don’t get swept up in the anger. There may be certain situations that trigger angry outbursts. Try to identify these triggers and avoid them if possible.

Remember, the person with dementia is not truly responsible for their behavior, so don’t feel insulted or personally attacked. Try to take a moment after each incident to calm down and reduce your own level of stress.

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