Dementia is a terrifying symptom of disease that robs its victim of their memory. Dementia is not a disease itself but is a symptom of several (usually chronic and/or terminal) diseases. Despite common misconceptions, memory loss is not a normal part of aging and can indicate a larger problem.
An unfortunate part of dementia care and dealing with loved ones who suffer from dementia-causing disease, such as Alzheimer’s is that dementia can vary in intensity and can progressively get worse. Yet, another impact of dementia is that it is not isolated to memory in the sense of simply recalling information. It can influence language, attention span, reasoning and judgment, and even visual perception. What does this mean? On Monday, your mother may know exactly who you are, where she is, and what she is doing, but may not be able to recall what was on the list of things to do for the day. On Tuesday, however, she may wake up and not recognize herself in the mirror and react violently. On Wednesday, the memory loss symptoms can be as subtle as she cannot recall the measurements to the recipe she has been making for years; on Thursday she has to be prompted to swallow the food she places in her mouth. These fluctuations in “good days” and “bad days” can be frustrating for those close to her, but try to remember how frustrating it must be for her.
In this multi-part series, we will explore some common behavior changes in someone suffering from dementia, and how caretakers or loved ones can manage them.
Behavior #1: Aggression
Aggression is a common behavior in those suffering from dementia and is the symptom that loved ones or caretakers may have the hardest time dealing with. The woman that they know as their sweet, caring mother is now yelling expletives and swinging fists. It is important to remember, they are not doing it on purpose. Usually, aggression is coming from a place of fear or discomfort. Imagine a baby who does not understand what gas pains are, all they know is their tummy is upset; they react by screaming violently because they simply do not know what else to do. Now imagine you wake up and you have no idea where you are or what you are supposed to do, or even who you are; this is terrifying. Mood swings are common in Alzheimer’s.
Don’t react with aggression or violence. Do not become a victim to their physical aggression, but do not retaliate.
Patience is critically important to successful dementia care. The best thing to do in an aggressive situation is to make sure they are physically safe and then look for a source of the aggression. Speak in a calm, reassuring voice and attempt to identify why they are upset. If they are incontinent, aggression is a good indication that they have soiled themselves. If can be something much more basic like they are too warm or they are bored. Once you have ruled out any physical discomforts, you can attempt to redirect their attention.
In the next installment, we will cover poor judgment and changes in reasoning.