When a loved one starts showing symptoms of dementia, it’s scary to think that there may come a time when they don’t recognize you.
And when certain dementia behaviors arise, making your loved one seem like a different person from the relative you love, it can be even scarier.
Here, we’re breaking down a few common dementia behaviors and how to handle them effectively as part of your dementia care plan.
Common Dementia Behaviors
Before we talk about how to handle dementia behaviors, we should discuss what some of the most common behaviors are for caregivers.
As a caregiver, it can be hard for you to deal with behaviors effectively if you don’t understand where they’re coming from.
As dementia progresses, you may be surprised by the increased level of aggressiveness you see in your loved one.
It’s important to remember, though, that your loved one isn’t being agressive out of anger at you or anyone else. Aggression can arise from a number of factors, including miscommunication, environmental factors, physical factors, or even confusion.
Remember, if your loved one is having trouble with their memory and can sense that you’re frustrated, they’re more likely to get frustrated too–unlike you, they may not know what’s going on or understand why you’re frustrated with them in the first place.
As a caregiver, you may feel at a loss when your loved one is confused, especially when they’re in a familiar setting like their own house.
Unfortunately, behaviors like this are common–one of the biggest indicators of dementia, in fact.
This can include standard confusion about where they are or what’s going on. But it can also include behaviors that are clearly not grounded in reality, such as hallucinations (perceiving something that isn’t there) or delusions (false beliefs which lead to paranoia).
A common phrase is, “Why are we here?” or “This isn’t my house.”
Another problem that frustrates caregivers is when a loved one with dementia wanders or leaves the house unassisted.
This has to do with the disorientation caused by memory lapses. In severe cases, this can lead to confusion about the passage of time, which is how someone starts wandering–they can’t remember why they started walking somewhere and soon enough have no idea where they are or what’s going on.
Sundowning is a specific symptom of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, sometimes called “late-day confusion“.
The exact cause of sundown syndrome is unknown, but it is well-documented. Patients who exhibit symptoms but are otherwise cheerful and manageable during the day may become increasingly disoriented, anxious, moody, even aggressive.
Doctors believe this is related to dementia’s disruption of the body’s internal clock, which is also why many people with sundowning syndrome also trouble getting a good night’s sleep.
Sundowning gets its name from the late evening/nighttime when these symptoms are visible, so low lighting can aggravate sundowning, as can too much end-of-day activity that disrupts the internal clock.
It’s even been shown that shorter days in winter can make sundowning worse, which indicates that it may be connected to seasonal affective disorder.
Changes in Eating Habits
Finally, you may notice shifts in your loved one’s patterns of eating.
The reason for this is actually quite simple: because your loved one is having memory problems, they may not remember whether or not they ate already, and since they’re confused about other things, it’s easy to forget to eat (or eat too often).
This also means that they may not remember to stock their refrigerator, so even if they do remember to eat, they may not have anything on hand to eat.
How to Deal with Dementia Behaviors
Once you understand the behaviors to watch out for and what’s causing them, it’s easier to get a handle on how to deal with them.
Let’s break it down.
Handling Aggressive Actions
If your loved one does become aggressive over time, the first thing to remember is to not get angry yourself.
Your loved one isn’t being aggressive out of spite. They’re being aggressive because they’re confused and because dementia is interfering with their ability to regulate their mood. You can’t take this aggressiveness personally–it doesn’t have anything to do with you.
Instead, try to identify the immediate cause. Once you know they’re not a danger to themselves or someone else, speak calmly and try to shift their focus elsewhere. Try to remove the word ‘no’ from your vocabulary–you’re trying to avoid a fight.
This is where knowing your loved one is vital. If your loved one doesn’t like being fussed over, the best thing you can do might be to back up and give them the space they need.
Handling Confusion and Wandering
Confusion and wandering are related issues that stem from the same problem: memory.
If your loved one is confused about where they are, either because they’re in a memory care facility or because they don’t recognize their house, go for simple explanations with tangible reminders like photos.
If your loved one thinks you’re their late mother instead of their daughter, focus on connecting with them on an emotional level instead of trying to make them recognize you. The goal here isn’t reorientation, but rather to reduce anxiety.
Whatever you do, do not try to reason with them or launch into lengthy explanations. It’s a bit like reasoning with a drunk person or a young child–it just won’t work, and you’re only making them more upset.
The best way to deal with sundowning is to plan around it.
Schedule any stressful activities, like showers, in the morning. In the evening, try to occupy them with things they enjoy, like watching a favorite sports team on TV.
And while you may be frustrated, try to keep your emotions in check. Your loved one may not understand the full context of a situation, but they can still tell when you’re upset. Your impatience will only aggravate them.
Handling Changes in Eating Habits
Finally, if you notice changes in eating habits, you’re going to have to step in on your loved one’s behalf.
Start stocking their fridge regularly, and make sure food is getting eaten. One way to do this is to eat meals with them. If your loved one is still somewhat with it, you can keep a meal checklist on the fridge that they can refer to if they can’t remember whether or not they’ve eaten (tick the boxes yourself).
Need Help Caring for Someone with Dementia?
Memory is one of the most human experiences we have. It’s how we hold conversations and tell stories. When a loved one’s memory starts fading, it can be frightening to see how much it changes the person you know and love.
But just because it’s a long fight doesn’t mean that you and your loved one need to go it alone.
If it’s time to consider moving your loved one to a memory care facility, find a facility near your or take a tour to see what we can do to help your loved one stay happy and healthy as long as possible.