Addressing Agitation in Someone Who Has Dementia

Old woman's hands tucked between her legs

Used under Creative Commons by Horia Varlan.

A dementia patient’s agitation is one aspect of the disease that can be distressing to family members. They may fuss and fidget or repeat certain phrases. They may scream out or ask the same question over and over again. For some family members, this is the aspect of the disease that inspires the most dread.

This behavior may have a variety of causes. It may be that something in the person’s environment is bothering them. Or they may be trying to complete a task that is too complex for them. Or the behavior could simply be due to changes in brain chemistry. There are ways that families can address agitation and help the dementia patient become calmer.

First, determine the root cause of the agitation. If it is something specific, such as a runny nose or a room that is too cold, you may want to simply address the problem if all it requires is a sweater or a tissue.

Another technique to try is to remind your loved one of an activity they used to enjoy. For example, if your mother stayed at home to raise four children, you could give her a baby doll and get her to tell you stories about when you and your siblings were growing up. Or if your father used to pride himself on his garden, take him outside to look at the flowers or maybe even do a little pruning. He may no longer be capable of carrying out more advanced tasks he used to be able to do, but it’s likely he’ll take pleasure in re-learning simpler ones. Re-directing the patient’s attention on something they enjoy can have surprisingly powerful effects. Some professional caregivers have even found that this technique reduces the need for medication.

Whatever you do, avoid confrontation and try to remain calm. The tone of your voice matters more than you think, so try not to let your frustration or annoyance show. Try to distract your loved one from whatever might be irritating them. Don’t try to rush your loved one along; let them move at their own pace.

When deciding how to address a loved one’s agitation, be flexible and consider a variety of solutions, depending on the cause. There is no one magic way to address this behavior. Instead, try to find different solutions that work at different times, and consider them part of your toolbox of ways to respond to the disease.