When the Alzheimer’s Patient Lashes Out

Have you ever seen your father flip out? I mean, really, flip out? Voice screaming, arms flailing, face turning red as an apple?

Odds are, if you ever screwed up as a child, you’ve seen this before.  Maybe you stayed out past curfew.  Maybe you “borrowed” dad’s car without asking.  Maybe your report card wasn’t up to par. Or worse…

But most of us haven’t experienced this as adults, and when, more importantly, we haven’t even screwed up.  But this is something Alzheimer’s caregivers go through all the time, and it is one of the most difficult dementia-related behaviors to deal with.

As the administrator of senior care facilities that specialize in dementia, I have seen some of the most mild-mannered people erupt like Mt.St. Helens.  And I have seen the devastation on their children’s faces.

This isn’t mom.  This isn’t dad.  Who is this person?  It can be depressing, and it can be scary.

The Root of Aggressive Behavior

When an individual is struck with Alzheimer’s disease or another cause of dementia, various cognitive abilities and functions gradually deteriorate over time.  This includes the brain’s control over speech.

As the brain deteriorates, an individual will lose the ability to select the right words to express a thought (aphasia) or the ability to finish sentences or thoughts, and will become confused about how to communicate at all.

If this weren’t scary enough, consider these symptoms in the context of the overall disease.  A dementia patient experiences symptoms based on what part of the brain is affected, and when.  It is quite possible that the parts of the brain responsible for speech will be more drastically affected, at a certain point, than the parts that actually control thought.

Current research suggests that the root cause of the developmental stage known as the “Terrible Twos” results from the fact that a child’s brain is developing faster than the ability to express thoughts.  That inability causes them to lash out.

Think about what this means for dementia patients.  They can literally be prisoners in their own minds – knowing what they want to express, but being unable to do so.

This, along with physical discomfort, environmental factors, and poor communication, are the causes of aggressive and agitated behavior.

Dealing with Aggressive Behavior

When you experience a loved one with this type of behavior, it is crucial to know how to deal with it:

  • Try to identify the immediate cause.  Think about what happened right before the reaction that may have triggered the behavior.
  • Focus on feelings, not the facts.  Rather than focusing on specific details, consider the individual’s emotions.  Look for the feelings behind the words.
  • Don’t get upset.  Don’t take the behavior personally.  Be positive and reassuring.  Speak slowly in a soft tone.
  • Limit distractions.  Examine the individual’s surroundings, and adapt them to avoid similar situations.
  • Try a relaxing activity.  Use music, massage or exercise to help soothe the problem.
  • Shift the focus to another activity.  The immediate situation or activity may have unintentionally caused the aggressive response.  Try something different.
  • Decrease the level of danger.  Assess the level of danger — for yourself and the individual.  You can often avoid harm by simply stepping back and standing away from the person.  If the person is headed out of the house and onto the street, be more assertive.
  • Avoid using restraint or force.  Unless the situation is serious, avoid physically holding or restraining the individual.  He or she may become more frustrated and cause personal harm.

 As you continue to put these methods into practice, you will soon develop a level of comfort, and you will be able to minimize the frequency, strength, and duration of these types of episodes.

And that will do wonders for your peace of mind.

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