Those living with dementia may behave in ways that are quite different from what their loved ones have come to expect.
In the early stages of the disease, it’s common for the person to be aware that cognitive changes are happening. Such awareness can certainly cause anxiety, fear, depression and other emotional reactions.
As the disease progresses, one’s moods and behaviors may change more frequently. An empathetic approach and better understanding of cause and effect may help both the caregiver and the person living with dementia cope.
Anger is a common way of responding to or expressing other emotions that may be hard to articulate, such as fear, frustration, confusion and embarrassment, which are common experiences for someone with dementia.
If your loved one becomes angry, try to pay attention to what happened prior to their outburst. Knowing what triggers them can help you avoid it in the future.
Good strategies for dissipating anger include taking your loved one to a quiet space to calm down, letting them vent their frustrations versus telling them to calm down, doing deep breathing exercises with them and going with their reality versus trying to reorient them (e.g., if they think Eisenhower is still president, just go with it versus trying to correct them). At all costs, avoid arguing, even if they are accusing you or someone else of things that are not true.
If your loved one experiences extreme anger, or if they tend to act out their anger physically, take common-sense precautions to ensure your safety and theirs. Remove or lock up anything they might use as a weapon. Make sure you have your phone in your pocket, in case you need to call for help.
Someone with dementia may know their physical and cognitive abilities are changing but may not understand how much or why. As a result, they may experience feelings ranging from mild sadness to depression.
If your loved one seems to be suffering from depression, talk to their physician about whether they might benefit from therapy or medication. You can also support them by encouraging them to participate in activities they enjoy; just remember, those activities may change over time.
The cognitive changes experienced by someone with dementia mean that they struggle with processing information, especially information about changes in their environment. New people and new situations can be frightening, leading to feelings of anxiety.
As previously discussed, anxiety may be expressed as anger or expressed in other ways like restlessness, pacing or wandering. Clinginess may also be a sign of anxiety, as the person wants to stay close to a familiar face in an unfamiliar situation.
To help a loved one who’s feeling anxious, reassure them that they are safe and loved. For instance, if they become anxious when you have to leave the house, make sure you tell them when you’ll be back. Medication may also dissipate anxiety.
The best way to head off mood swings is by making your loved one’s environment feel safe, pleasant and predictable. People with dementia respond best to stable routines that include activities they enjoy.
Knowing what triggers your loved one’s mood swings can help you avoid them in the first place. Keep a notebook handy to write down what was happening prior to their mood swing. Look for patterns to identify triggers.
Helping Your Loved One
The mood changes experienced with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia can be challenging for caregivers. Rather than taking their moods and related behaviors personally, remember that your loved one is not directing them at you; they’re caused by the disease.
Mood and personality changes are just one of seven early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Learn about the others, as well as next steps if your loved one is showing these signs, in our helpful tip sheet, 7 Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.