What Causes Aggression In Those With Dementia?

Caring for somebody with dementia is one of the most difficult things we can do in life. Whether we’re related to them or not, the duty of care we take is one that none of us take lightly. The distress of being around the condition is compounded by the outbursts of aggression that some people with dementia exhibit – even if they were never aggressive in life.

But what causes this aggression with people living with dementia, and is there anything we can do to reduce it?

What causes it?

Aggressive behaviour is, sadly, a fact of dementia. Whether verbal or physical, reports of violence are all too common when it comes to dementia care. This aggressive behaviour might linked to the person’s personality and behaviour prior to developing dementia, or it could be entirely new to the person.

Those with dementia have the same needs as everyone else, including the requirements for social interaction, stimulation, comfort, emotional wellbeing and being free from pain. For people without dementia these needs are easy to communicate and fix, but in those with dementia, it can be extremely difficult to get these points across.

Indeed, the stress of being either unable to effectively communicate what they need or recognise what they need themselves can lead to challenging or aggressive behaviour. The behaviour could be an attempt to either communicate their requirements or an outcome of an unmet requirement. The reasons a person with dementia might be aggressive are many, and could be biological, social or psychological.

How can you deal with it?

In the moment, it’s important to take a deep breath and step back before you respond. Give them some space until you’ve both calmed down and go back in to address the situation. It’s also a good idea to:

  • Try to stay calm, reacting in kind will only make the situation worse. Remember that they might not have a full understanding of what they’ve done, and could take being shouted at or worse very badly.
  • Reassure the person and let them know that you acknowledge their feelings.
  • Listen to what they are saying, this will show them that you’re trying to understand.
  • Try not to show any fear, alarm or anxiety, as this might increase the person’s agitation. If you feel truly threatened, call for help.
  • Maintain eye contact and explain why you’re there.
  • Attempt to distract their attention if they’re still angry.
  • Find out what’s causing the behaviour and empathise.

After the incident has passed, don’t punish their behaviour – carry on as normal and be as reassuring as possible.

What can be done to prevent it?

For those who have dealt with violence and aggression, prevention is an essential goal. There are numerous tactics to prevent aggression:

  • Try to find out what’s causing their distress, and work to remove it. It might be that they’re in pain, in which case, take them to a GP and see what can be done.
  • Does a certain time of the day or activity cause them distress? Work to discover what about that time or activity worries them, and aim to relax them if at all possible.
  • Try using their favourite music, films, TV programmes or poems to diffuse situations where you feel aggression could arise.

These are just a few ideas, many more can be found at the Alzheimer’s Society.

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