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Alzheimer’s and agitation: How caregivers can cope

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Photo by Gabriella Fabbri/Freeimages

Among the most disturbing and difficult behaviors for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s to manage is agitation and aggression. Unfortunately, agitation and aggression are quite common symptoms, with almost half of those with Alzheimer’s exhibiting such behaviors, according to a 2008 study.

infographic-4_editedI witnessed the effects my father’s aggressive behavior had on my mother. Even though my dad was slim, when agitated he proved to be far more than my mother could handle. He still could pack a punch, literally, as when he hauled off and hit my mother in the chin with his fist. He claimed he was shadow boxing and she got in the way.

My father was eventually placed in a memory care center, in part due to his aggressive behavior.

Over the years, I’ve learned tips on how to best manage Alzheimer’s agitation and aggression. The key is that not every solution works for every patient; each case is unique. Here are some suggestions I found helpful:

  • Determine if agitation follows a pattern: For some people with Alzheimer’s, they become more agitated at dusk (sundowning) or during specific tasks, like getting a bath or taking medication. (For my dad, it was the bedtime routine.) Consider that the task may be frustrating to complete for the person with Alzheimer’s. If a certain event is a known trigger, it can be helpful in reducing agitation. Distract with an activity to reduce the effects of sundowning. Have an aide help with bathing. Try to disguise medication in food or a smoothie if possible.
  • Create a calm environment: Those with dementia tend to do best in calm environments that reduce the risk of overstimulation. Noise in particular can be overwhelming. Try soothing, familiar music and lights that are bright enough to maintain safety in the home but that don’t create a harsh glare. Limit caffeine if that is determined to increase agitation. Natural remedies, such as soothing teas and herbs may be helpful, but always check with a doctor first.
  • Stay active: For those with Alzheimer’s who are ambulatory, exercise can help reduce aggression and agitation. My dad loved to take long walks, and as his dementia progressed, he spent more time indoors, which was a source of frustration for him and increased his agitation. For those who have difficulty walking, doing simple household tasks like folding towels can be useful in preventing boredom, as can activities like simple jigsaw puzzles and coloring books.
  • Medication: While medication is not effective for some patients, it can be a useful tool when combined with the above suggestions. Consult your loved one’s physician to learn about options. Consider enrolling your loved one in a drug trial if they qualify.

One important factor to keep in mind is that agitation that appears suddenly may be related to a physical ailment your loved one is experiencing but cannot communicate their discomfort. For example, urinary tract infections are common in those with dementia, and can create very uncomfortable symptoms, which can increase agitation. A new medication can also increase aggression. Share any concerns with your loved one’s doctor.

What methods have you found to curb aggression and agitation in those with Alzheimer’s disease?

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