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3 Essential Tips to Reducing Challenging Behaviors in Dementia Care

Anger, swearing, hallucinations, or aggressive outbursts are a few of the challenging behaviors caregivers might experience when trying to offer care to a resident or loved one. 

As if this disease wasn’t heart-wrenching enough, having the person in your care struggle and fight your well-intended actions can be hurtful and frustrating.

To help you reduce the occurrence of these behaviors and have better care outcomes, we’ve put together a few tips and action-steps you can try to make dementia care a bit less difficult:

1. Get out your detective’s hat and looking glass

You don’t need to become a private investigator, but it helps to know that a great number of challenging behaviors are caused by an unmet physical or emotional need. What does that mean?

As a person’s ability to express themselves diminishes due to the dementia, they might no longer be able to tell you if something is wrong. They might have developed a urinary tract infection. They might have fallen and are in pain. They might be dehydrated, but are unable to ask for water.

There are many reasons a person living with dementia might be in some form of distress and not able to tell you. [Click here to download a list of the 10 Most Common Unmet Needs to look for.]

By looking into and considering each option, you stand a good chance of finding the cause of the behavior and eliminating it to return peace and comfort to the person in your care.

2. Approach & Connect – the Right Way

You probably know that a person’s field of vision, how much one can see on their sides without turning their head, gets smaller as we age. But did you know that with dementia, a person’s visual field shrinks to the size of binoculars by mid-stage? In late stage dementia it even reduces to monocular vision.

Quick tip: Make binoculars with your hands and hold them in front of your eyes to experience for yourself how little a person living with dementia is able to see.)

Did you notice that you can’t see what on your side, down below or above you without moving your head?

That is why people living with dementia are easily startled when you approach them from the side or come up from behind. Instead, always approach from the front so they can see you first. [Click here to download a step-by-step list on How to Best Approach A Person Living with Dementia.]

3. Use the Environment to Your Advantage

Human behavior is greatly influenced by its surroundings and environment. The same holds true for a person living with dementia. Paying attention to settings, sounds, sights, lighting, or even smells can greatly impact your care outcomes.

Here are a few examples on how you can use this to your advantage:

During bath time, set the room temperature so it is very warm; that way the person in your care will be more comfortable undressing. (See Teepa Snow’s video on “How to Bathe A Person Living with Dementia”).

Turn on their favorite music to help lighten the mood, and possibly help them reminiscence and connect through stories.

You could also decorate the room to create a more inviting atmosphere.

(Case study: At the Memory Care unit at Pines of Sarasota, the not-for-profit organization we belong to, staff had trouble during bath time.

Along with beginning to use MP3 players to play residents’ favorite tunes during bath time, local artists K.C. Higgins gave the cold and uninviting bathroom a makeover that changed it all.

Since then, staff reports that bath time has become much more peaceful and enjoyable for all.)

Always remember: It’s not you - it’s the disease

Over time, dementia robs the person of who they once were and you might see new behaviors appear that can be puzzling or shocking to you.

Always keep in mind that these behaviors are caused by the dementia, not the person in your care. After all, dementia is not a memory problem, but active brain failure.

If there is one habit that is worth working on and practicing for caregivers, it’s the skill to not take things personally.

As hard as it may be, remind yourself that the cursing or anger that might appear to be directed at you is really a symptom of the disease. Not only may it help you feel a little better when a challenging behavior occurs, but it can help safeguard the relationship between you and the person in your care.


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