What if your dementia patient becomes abusive, aggressive or violent?

Angry, enraged senior woman yelling at a landline office phone, unhappy with customer service provided by the agent on the other side, giving off steam and smokeMy husband Morris was a gentle man. But occasionally, if things didn’t go his way, he would get nasty. Once Alzheimer’s took his brain hostage, he exhibited a darker side. But only when he was frustrated or confused.

Morris spent the last two years of his life in a memory care home. He was popular among the staff because he liked to goof around. When he walked the halls listening to music on his Walkman, he’d have a smile on his face and swagger to the rhythm. But if another resident got in his way, watch out. If it was crowded in the dining room and someone accidentally bumped him, he’d swing his arm out to shoo that person away. When one of his neighbors walked into Morris’s room mistaking it for his own, the two got into a rumble on the bed and fought like school boys. After this happened a couple more times, the neighbor was moved to the opposite side of the facility.

When Morris hit a resident in the dining room, the on-call physician prescribed a depressant to “calm him down.” Morris reacted to the drug by transforming into a zombie who slumped in his chair and slept too many hours during the day. I insisted that he get off the drug and Morris returned to his mostly cheerful self.

I once had a next door neighbor whose wife had Alzheimer’s. She threatened to kill her husband with a knife and then went on to slash a painting hanging in their living room. Was she or Morris responsible for their actions? No. A person with dementia is not responsible for acts of violence because as the disease progresses, neurons in the cortex that are responsible for language, reasoning and social behavior are destroyed. This leads to some Alzheimer’s patients engaging in aggressive or violent behavior such as biting, kicking, spitting, slapping, punching, and/or using foul language.

Research from the National Institutes of Health indicates that up to 96 percent of patients with dementia who were studied over a 10-year-period exhibited aggressive behavior at one time or other. In 2011, CNN Health reported that 5 to 10 percent of Alzheimer’s patients exhibit violent behavior at some point during the course of the disease.

There is usually a reason for aggressive behavior.

What to watch out for

  • Urinary tract infection
  • Pain or stress
  • Loneliness, depression
  • Too much noise or stimulation
  • Boredom
  • Constipation
  • Soiled diaper or underwear
  • Uncomfortable room temperature
  • Physical discomfort (stomach ache, etc)
  • Confusion
  • Anger about loss of freedom (to drive, living independently)
  • Drug reaction or contra-indication
  • Resistance against being told what to do such as bathing
  • Sudden change in routine, environment or caregiver
  • Communication problems
  • Hunger or not liking the food
  • Dehydration

What to do

  1. If your life or the life of the person you care for is in danger, get help immediately!
  2. The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24-hour helpline at 800-272-3900.
  3. Rule out UTIs, pain, discomfort, etc.
  4. Use an essential oil to help calm the person down. When my husband got agitated I’d put a few drops of oil on a cotton pad inside a diffuser and plug it into the wall. He usually calmed down immediately.  The following oils can be used in a diffuser, or put in a bath or fragrance free moisturizer. They can also be sprayed on a pillow or handkerchief. Citrus oils are generally refreshing and uplifting for the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for odor management and appetite support. Consider: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange. Floral oils are often used as a personal fragrance and are useful to relieve anxiety, depression, and irritability. These oils are useful as an inhaler, in a body lotion, and for the bath. Consider: clary sage, geranium, lavender, rose, and ylang ylang. Tree oils are revitalizing with immune boosting properties, ease respiratory congestion, and are supportive to breathing ease. They are useful for pain relief, skin infections, and odor management, and can relieve nervous exhaustion and depression. Consider: eucalyptus (Eucalytpus citriodora or globulus), pine needle, sandalwood, or Tea Tree.
  5. Reassure your patient by speaking gently and calmly.
  6. Play calming music, i.e. Mozart
  7. Try to distract the person with a TV show, favorite snack (ice cream almost always works), or a walk outside.
  8. Maintain a regular routine.
  9. Make sure the lighting is suitable in the home or facility.
  10. Help the person to maintain as much dignity and independence as possible.
  11. Make sure the person is eating a nutritious low-sugar, low-salt diet, with no or very limited amounts of alcohol and caffeine.

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.