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Coping with Agitation

Over the course of time, people with dementia can exhibit a variety of changes in behavior.  Some of these can be difficult for loved ones to cope with and understand.  Among the more challenging of such behaviors, an increased tendency toward irritability and agitation are quite common, particularly in the later stages of dementia.  If your loved one has dementia and has begun to get agitated frequently, it might be helpful to look at some of the common causes of agitation and identify a few coping strategies that you can use during these difficult times.  Although people with dementia do tend to get agitated and it might appear to be random, there are often underlying triggers for the behavior.

People with dementia often have a hard time communicating what they’re feeling.  Agitation can be a sign that your loved one is trying to tell you something.  For instance, they might be trying to express a feeling of discomfort.  It might be something simple like hunger, thirst, or a need to use the bathroom.  However, it could also be something more serious like an injury or infection.  Paying close attention to facial expressions and body language can help you determine if there is an underlying physical need.  Asking them to point to the problem can sometimes be effective.  Try to avoid becoming agitated yourself.  It’s often helpful in such situations to pause and take a few breaths.  Recognize that your loved one’s behavior is a symptom of their illness and not an attack on you personally. 

If the agitation tends to occur at a certain time of day, that might provide some insight as to whether or not there is an underlying need.  For example, if your loved one tends to become agitated later in the day, it might be an indication that he or she is tired and needs to rest.  If your loved one tends to become agitated in a certain place or room in the house, it might be helpful to closely examine things like the lighting and temperature.  Is it too hot, too cold, or very cluttered?  Even certain pictures in the room can cause someone with dementia to become agitated.  Such behavior isn’t always an indication that something is wrong.  People with dementia can sometimes become agitated by something that stirs up powerful emotions, such as a fond memory from a family photo.

While there is no simple formula to help you identify a root cause for agitation and irritability, if you pay close attention to your loved one’s body language, facial expressions, and immediate surroundings, you should begin to see some patterns in their behavior.  With some gentle prodding and trial and error, you can start to identify some underlying causes for the agitation and offer remedies accordingly.  If the agitated behavior becomes persistent or worsens, it’s probably best to consult with your doctor.

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