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How to Deal With Aggression and Dementia

Written by Kristen Hicks
 about the author
8 minute readLast updated April 10, 2023

Aggression is one of the worst parts of caring for a parent or senior loved one with dementia, but you’re not powerless. Having a number of strategies on hand gives you the means to handle a loved one’s aggressive behavior any time it occurs.

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7 Ways to Deal With Aggressive Behavior

Making the situation even worse for many caregivers and families, a parent or senior loved one’s aggression may seem to come out of nowhere.
“This is likely a significant personality change for the patient and the family members are often upset because of it,” says licensed psychologist, Dr. Ashley Hampton. “When someone you love that’s never been aggressive before suddenly starts having outbursts, it can be terrifying. You don’t just want to know how to respond in the moment, you need to learn what you can do to keep it from happening again.”

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Fortunately, dementia and mental health experts offer a number of recommendations for ways to prevent and cope with aggression.

1. Check the environment for triggers.

In some cases, unseen physical discomfort can be the cause of the problem. In others, it could be more obvious irritants in the atmosphere, like too much stimulus from noise or the number of people in a room.
If you can find anything in their immediate surroundings that may be causing a loved one to feel agitated, remove the trigger to see if that helps. If you can’t, then move your loved one to a calmer area.

2. Communicate clearly.

The last thing you want to do is add to a senior loved one’s confusion or irritation. Make sure you communicate with them in a calm and clear manner.
Dr. David A. Merrill of the Providence St. John’s Health Center advises, “Communicating in direct and simple language also helps. Break down tasks into simple steps. Don’t expect too much or overwhelm loved ones with complex requests.”

3. Create a routine.

Following a schedule can remove some of the uncertainty in a loved one’s life. Figure out a consistent time of day for having meals, scheduling doctor’s visits, taking medication, etc.

4. Give parents and senior loved ones their space.

This tip can be important for both you and a senior loved one with dementia. First, it may be necessary for your own safety.
“Giving the parent or senior loved one their space if they begin to show signs of aggression or frustration can also help prevent fits of rage or violence. Taking a minute to regroup and return to the situation gives you space to decompress the nerves before re-addressing the issue,” says GinaMarie Guarino, a mental health counselor.

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5. Make sure physical needs are taken care of.

Sometimes what seems to be the issue is really a symptom of another underlying problem. If your loved one is experiencing physical discomfort but isn’t sure how to tell you (or is too embarrassed to), their agitation could turn into aggression.
Dr. Beatrice Tauber Prior of Harborside Wellbeing explains, “There are many illnesses (e.g., a urinary tract infection or UTI) that can lead to an increase in aggressive behaviors. If you notice that the usual things that work to calm your loved one are not working, make an appointment to see their medical professional to rule out a physical reason/illness that may be causing the aggressive behaviors,” she recommends.

6. Try redirection.

If you can get a parent or senior loved one focused on something other than what’s upsetting them, you may be able to redirect them from the negative emotions they were feeling.
This can be as simple as putting on a favorite TV show, asking them for help with another project, or offering to go for a walk. Even if you just go out in the backyard, a change of scenery can make a world of difference.

7. Try to understand.

“Think about the specific emotion underlying the aggression,” suggests Dr. Tauber Prior. “No matter how far away from reality their perception is, begin with what they perceive the situation to be.
Scott Knoll, director of By Your Side Home Care adds, “More than anything, we see clients who become aggressive because they are frustrated with their own memory loss. To minimize their violence, first minimize their confusion.”
If your loved one’s aggression is caused by confusion, taking time to ask them questions about what they’re feeling and really listen to what they’re saying can go a long way to figuring out what they need to hear to feel better about the situation.


Meet the Author
Kristen Hicks

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom (of which OurParents is a trademark) and the reader.  Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site.  Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.