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Dementia and Anger: 10 Calming Strategies

In dementia, anger outbursts are often caused by the stress and frustration of everyday tasks

Seniors with dementia may easily get frustrated and stressed

Sometimes it seems like seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia get angry at the drop of a hat.

Most likely, they’re suddenly reaching a breaking point because of built-up frustrations from everyday tasks. This might be the root cause of aggressive behavior or angry outbursts.

To reduce these “dementia and anger” flare-ups, they need help to decrease their stress and feelings of overwhelm.

We share 10 ways to make everyday life easier and less stressful for seniors with dementia.


Why does dementia and anger happen?

When someone has dementia, their ability to function well in the world declines.

Tasks that we consider simple, like brushing teeth, are actually quite complex.

To a person with dementia, it can be difficult to remember all the steps and sequence them properly.

For example, these are the major steps needed to brush teeth:

  1. Enter the correct bathroom (the one with their toothbrush)

  2. Find switch and turn on light

  3. Locate correct toothbrush (theirs)

  4. Locate toothpaste

  5. Take cap off toothpaste

  6. Put an appropriate amount of toothpaste on toothbrush

  7. Put toothbrush (with toothpaste still on) in mouth and gently brush every tooth surface

  8. Spit out toothpaste

  9. Rinse mouth thoroughly with water – spit, don’t swallow

So, even a simple task isn’t that simple Once we break it down, brushing our teeth is far less simple than we might think.

And, a person with dementia may also have trouble with the smaller steps that make up many of these major steps.

When even the most basic parts of the day can be difficult and overwhelming, it’s easy for frustration to build up.

When someone with dementia needs to complete yet another “simple” daily task, it could cause angry outbursts.

For example, when you’ve had an extremely stressful day, someone coming to you with even a simple request can cause you to lose your temper – it’s the last straw, right?

That’s often what’s happening to seniors with dementia.

Because their world is becoming more confusing and difficult to navigate, it doesn’t take much for them to reach that “last straw” feeling and react with anger.

10 ways to reduce anger in dementia

1. Accept their limitations Avoid pushing seniors with dementia beyond their limits by expecting them to do things they’ve been struggling with.

They aren’t refusing to do things because they’re lazy or refuse to remember.

Their brains are failing and they’re losing the knowledge and abilities they need to accomplish those once-easy tasks.

Accept where they are now and work with the skills they have today. Adjust as needed as things inevitably change.

2. Reduce complex decisions Making choices about every part of their day isn’t necessary, but there are some decisions your older adult may still want to make.

The goal isn’t to take away their right to choose, but to simplify to make choices easier – too many options are confusing and overwhelming.

For example, when changing, lay out all the clothes they need, but offer a choice between two shirts – the red shirt or the blue shirt?

This way, they’re still participating in the process, but won’t have to find and select all the other clothing items they need.

Similarly, for lunch you could offer a choice between two entrees you know they enjoy – a ham sandwich or split pea soup?

That decision is much easier to respond to than a broad question like “What do you want for lunch?”

3. Slow down We’re used to moving at a “normal” pace, but that’s because our brains are fully functional and can quickly process information and thoughts.

When someone has dementia, those cognitive processes slow down significantly.

That’s why your older adult needs a lot more time when thinking, speaking, or taking action.

To reduce stress and allow them to feel successful, don’t rush them through daily life.

Take the pressure off and let them move at their own pace – even if it seems really slow.

4. Keep the environment calm and quiet Being in a noisy, bustling environment can overwhelm the senses and make it hard to think, especially when someone has dementia.

Have you noticed that we all need calm and quiet when we’re trying to think?

For example, if you’re driving to an unfamiliar location, you automatically turn down the radio so you can concentrate. And, most students seek out quiet places like libraries when they need to learn complex new concepts.

For someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, everyday tasks have become difficult and require extra thought and concentration.

When you add loud noise or lots of people, it’s natural for them to feel frustrated and stressed.

5. Treat them with respect Everyone, no matter their age or abilities, wants to be treated with respect. Seniors with dementia are no different.

Even if they struggle with decisions or everyday tasks, there are many ways to make things easier while still showing respect.

A good way to do this is to offer simplified choices, like with the red or blue shirt mentioned above.

That way, you’re not giving orders and expecting them to follow. You’re helping your older adult make decisions in a way that suits their current abilities.

Advertisement 6. Rely on routine Routines reduce the amount of thinking and number of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis.

For example, we don’t have to think about what time to eat breakfast because we always eat around 8am, after getting up and brushing our teeth.

Routines are especially helpful for seniors with dementia because they reduce the number of things they need to remember or think about.

Having a steady, constant routine is comforting and far less stressful than if each day was unpredictable and they had to go hunting for their toothbrush every time they needed it.

Putting objects in the same places and doing the same activities at the same time of day means they know where things are and what will be happening.

7. Speak slowly, plainly, and simply Alzheimer’s and dementia affect the brain’s ability to process and retrieve information.

Short, direct sentences with only one thought per sentence are easier to understand.

The goal is to give your older adult less to think about and less to remember. If you’re giving instructions, make it one step. If you’re sharing information, keep it to one thought.

Use fewer words, speak slowly, and use a positive and calm tone to make communication easier and less frustrating.

8. Avoid fatigue Getting overtired isn’t good for anyone’s mood, but it can put even more pressure on an already frazzled senior with dementia.

Just like you’re more likely to snap when you’re exhausted, someone with dementia is more likely to have an angry outburst when they’re fatigued.

9. Reduce or eliminate pain and discomfort People with dementia often experience pain or serious discomfort on a regular basis, typically caused by common health conditions.

As you might expect, someone who’s in pain might be angry or have a short fuse. 

But their ability to recognize what’s going on in their body and communicate their needs declines as dementia advances.

By watching for signs of untreated pain or physical needs like going to the bathroom or irritated skin, you can help reduce or eliminate their pain or discomfort.

10. Help them be successful When a task is too difficult, it’s frustrating and stressful.

The answer isn’t to have your older adult stop doing things for themselves. That will only make them feel worse. Instead, find ways to modify activities so they will be successful.

For example, if they’re having trouble cutting their food during meals, consider serving dishes where the food is already cut into smaller pieces. Or, get a specialized knife that’s easier to use (like the one in this set).

If your older adult struggles to zip their pants or button their shirts, consider switching to clothing with velcro fasteners instead of zippers or buttons (like these). 

And if they have trouble tying their shoes, one idea is to switch to easy, slip-on or velcro shoes (like these).

Bathing is another good example. Similar to brushing teeth, there are many steps involved in taking a bath or shower.

It’s much easier for them to be successful if you help by laying out a towel, comb, and fresh clothes. Then, turn on a heater in the bathroom and start the water running at a comfortable temperature.

Now there are fewer steps for your older adult to manage and bathing will be easier and more pleasant.

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By DailyCaring Editorial Team

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