Q: Why do some people become aggressive when they have dementia?

A: Dementia is a general term for memory loss and loss of other cognitive abilities that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. The most common form is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60-80% of all cases of dementia.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see signs of aggression in people who have dementia, and it primarily stems from frustrations. The National Institute of Health reported that over a ten-year period they saw almost 96 percent of all people with Alzheimer’s showed some aggression and 5 to 10 percent exhibited violent behaviors.

This type of aggression or violence may mean cursing, yelling, kicking, biting, spitting, slapping, or worse. The person with dementia is losing their ability to understand the world around them and is lashing out. They may not be able to communicate their needs and may be feeling pain or discomfort. They may be hungry, or they may have trouble understanding what is being said to them. The environment may be overstimulating, with too many noises and lights.

Regardless of the reason behind it, when your loved one becomes aggressive it will no doubt feel personal and be very upsetting. It may be difficult for the family caregiver to reach out for help because they feel ashamed of what is happening, or fear other people getting involved.

Sometimes there are ways that the family caregiver can learn to understand the behaviors and adjust to de-escalate them. Talking to a professional or taking classes on dementia can help educate the caregiver in how to handle and perhaps even prevent such behaviors.

It is always important to talk to the doctor if you see these mood and behavior changes. It is possible there is a urinary tract infection causing the difficult behaviors or another physical health issue to address. Once they rule those things out the doctor may find it appropriate to prescribe a medication to help calm the person’s mood.

The family caregiver has the right to safety and security. Even though we may understand that the behavior is stemming from a brain disease, it does not mean we should ever accept the behavior as inevitable. Ultimately, it is caused by a medical issue and therefore medical intervention should be part of the treatment.

The caregiver will need support from the doctor, friends and family and from the professionals who understand dementia. The first thing is to look at immediate safety needs. Ensure there are no weapons, including firearms, knives, and tools available. Know that in any immediate danger you should call 911 for assistance and tell them the person has dementia.

Caring for someone with aggression will take a toll on the caregiver. Know your options for placement in a facility if you are unable to meet the needs of your loved at home safely. You can call the Alzheimer’s Association 24 hour helpline at 800-272-3900 or schedule an appointment with one of Ventura County’s three Caregiver Resource Centers https://www.vcaaa.org/our-services/caregiver-services/

If you are caring for someone with dementia who is acting aggressively, give yourself permission to get help and support and not to be treated that way. Value your own safety and know that your loved one would want that for you if they could understand what was happening. Reach out for help so that both you and your loved one with dementia can get the information, support and care you both deserve.

Martha Shapiro can be reached at Senior Concerns at 805-497-0189 or by email at mshapiro@seniorconcerns.org.


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