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When dementia hurts: How to cope with a parent's aggression

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Aggression and hostility from a parent with dementia can hurt.

When an aging parent begins to experience dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, aggressive behaviors can develop that hurt.

Dementia can cause personality changes that include aggression and verbal abuse. It’s not unusual for a parent experiencing cognitive decline to pinch, hit, kick or overreact to criticism or minor stress.

Understand that it’s not personal
Coping with a parent who has dementia is never easy. It’s important to understand aggression and negative behaviors are caused by triggers that can be controlled. One of the most difficult things to do is not take hostility and anger personally.

Handling aggressive outbursts
Acknowledge that your mother or father is upset and reassure them.

Don’t argue. If you need some time to get collected, leave the room.

Use distraction. Try to refocus your parent’s attention to something pleasant. Humor, music or a gentle back rub might help calm angry outbursts.

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Don’t react by being upset. Use role playing with siblings, friends or your spouse to practice remaining calm and collected.

Try to understand what your parent is really trying to say. Dementia makes it difficult to communicate. Personality changes stem from lack of inhibition and judgment about how to behave appropriately.

Be patient, don’t ask questions that are difficult to answer or might be overwhelming. Focus on your parent’s strengths in conversation and always remain calm.

According to the UK Alzheimer’s Society, call for help if you need it. Never try to restrain a person with dementia who is acting violently. Give them space.

Try to identify causes
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found depression, combined with dementia can contribute to hurtful, aggressive behavior that might require treatment with medications. Other causes include taking too many medications and sleep disorders. Speak with your parent’s health care provider about options.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) suggests patients with dementia do best when they have contact with the same people, are allowed to care for themselves as long as possible, stay in the same living situation and follow consistent routines. Try to identify whether any of the aforementioned are making things worse.

Losing a parent to dementia can hurt. Understanding how to deal with a parent's aggression and hostility can make it easier to cope and help calm hurtful criticisms, verbal and physical outburst and overreactions. Remember too, that it’s important to talk to family, friends or a support group about your feelings.

Am J Psychiatry 1999;16:66-71.
“Physical Aggression in Dementia Patients and its Relationship to Depression”
Constantine G. Lyketsos et al., January 1, 1999
CAMH: Dementia