Caring for a loved one with dementia can be a challenging experience, particularly when dealing with angry or agitated behavior. As a family caregiver in Orange County, you are not alone if you struggle to manage your loved one's distressing outbursts. But understanding and addressing these behaviors is essential for the well-being of both you as the caregiver and your loved one. Luckily, there are a variety of behavior management strategies that can help family caregivers navigate these challenges with empathy and positive outcomes. By understanding the causes and triggers of these behaviors, you can develop effective techniques to de-escalate these situations and maintain a peaceful home environment. Let’s dive into what those strategies may look like.
Understanding Angry and Agitated Behavior in Dementia
One of the most difficult parts of your role as a family caregiver is understanding and managing your loved one’s angry or agitated behavior. That’s why, before we talk strategy, we should first talk about what their angry and agitated behavior might look like.
Dementia is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects memory, cognitive function, and behavior. As the disease progresses, your loved one may experience personality changes, mood swings, and difficulty communicating.
These changes are involuntary and can be really frustrating for your loved one. Whether they realize it or not, these changes may result in stress and/or anxiety, causing them to become agitated or aggressive. Some of the common triggers for these behaviors include:
Changes in routine
Or even boredom.
Underlying causes for these behaviors can also include:
Or side effects of medication.
As a caregiver, (while much easier said than done) it's important to remain patient and empathetic to your loved one's needs and behaviors, while also being mindful of potential triggers and underlying causes to better manage their care.
Coping and Behavior Management Strategies
Now that we’ve gone over what may trigger these behaviors, let’s talk about how to strategize care with these details in mind. As we go through these strategies, keep in mind that your loved one’s behaviors are a form of communication since they can longer communicate as they could before their diagnosis.
As a result of dementia, communication can become a challenge as the disease progresses. As such, anger and agitation can arise, making it difficult to stay calm and focused. Here are some key strategies to consider implementing during care:
Non-verbal cues. Pay attention to non-verbal cues and body language. Often, your loved one's non-verbal signals can tell you more than their words. This could be things like making fists, looking around the room frantically, sweating, fidgeting, etc.
Active listening. Learning and practicing active listening and responding empathetically can help to diffuse difficult situations. This means truly hearing and acknowledging your loved one's feelings, even if their words are difficult to understand or seem irrational.
Take space. Whenever you need it (if, for example, you feel yourself getting frustrated or angry) take some space to cool off. It's better to walk away and breathe for a few moments to collect your thoughts than to lash out at your loved one unexpectedly. Remember, they don't mean to frustrate or overwhelm you, their actions are a symptom of the disease.
Creating a Calming Environment
For anyone living with dementia, their surroundings can have a major impact on their mood and behavior. Bright lights, excessive noise, and unfamiliar surroundings can all cause feelings of stress and anxiety, which can be difficult to manage. To help create a calming environment for your loved one, here are a few worthwhile tips to consider:
Minimize clutter. Clutter can overwhelm even the healthiest individuals, so it can be incredibly impactful on those with dementia. Start by minimizing clutter and simplifying the space to help reduce confusion.
Reduce harsh tones. You might also consider using a soft color palette, dimming lights, and implementing natural materials like wood or plants to create a peaceful ambiance.
Create routines. Creating familiar routines and structured activities (like wake-up, dressing, eating, and hygiene routines) can be especially helpful in reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of security.
By designing a calming environment, you can help your loved one feel more comfortable and at ease, which can ultimately improve their quality of life.
Reducing Triggers and Managing Frustration
While nearly everything about caring for a loved one with dementia is difficult, one of the most challenging aspects of providing care is managing the emotional ups and downs that come with the disease. Particularly when your loved one becomes agitated or angry. Identifying common triggers that may lead to outbursts is the key to reducing them.
Pay attention to them and write down key moments with their behavior for a week. Over time, you’ll likely start to pick out patterns (what happened just before the outburst? How did we resolve it? Etc.) Whether it's a certain noise, smell, or activity, taking steps to minimize or eliminate these irritants can go a long way in keeping your loved one calm. You can also work to redirect their attention to something more calming or soothing to help defuse a tense situation.
It’s also important not to forget about your own frustration and stress. It's essential to practice self-care and find ways to manage your own emotions, whether it's through exercise, meditation or talking with a therapist. Remember, taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of your loved one.
Angry and Agitated Behavior by Dementia Stage
Stage of Dementia
Manifestations of Angry and Agitated Behavior
- Restlessness and pacing
- Verbal outbursts and yelling
- Irritability and impatience
- Suspicion and mistrust
- Resistance to care or assistance
- Increased aggression and physical agitation
- Delusions and hallucinations
- Repetitive questioning and demands
- Paranoia and accusations
- Wandering or trying to leave
- Severe agitation and aggression
- Aggressive resistance to care
- Incoherent or non-verbal expressions
- Emotional outbursts and mood swings
- Sundowning (increased agitation in the evening)
Please note that these behaviors can vary from person to person, and not all individuals will exhibit every behavior listed. That’s why it's important to consult with your loved one’s healthcare professional(s) for personalized guidance and support in managing these behaviors.
If you’re providing care to someone with dementia, we invite you to check out our free resources, including this video featuring our top strategies for coping with dementia-related behaviors. To get more information about the resources we have available to you as an Orange County, California caregiver, contact us at the California Caregiver Resource Center of Orange County.
Further Reading: Understanding Dementia-Related Wandering
Understanding dementia-related wandering is essential for helping those living with a cognitive impairment to stay safe and get the best care. In this article, we’ll help you understand the causes, symptoms, behavior management tips, treatment options, and community care options to help you better care for a loved one showing signs of dementia-related wandering. Click here to read about it.