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How to Handle Defiant Behavior in Aging Parents with Dementia

Mature daughter hugging elderly mother

If you’re caring for a parent with dementia, it’s nice to know that they are in a loving environment and that you can still spend time together and make memories. But caregiving can also be emotionally and physically draining, especially when their behavior changes and they become stubborn, defiant, or sometimes even aggressive. This can be scary and upsetting for any caregiver to handle—let alone if you’re family—but you’re not powerless. Having a number of strategies on hand to deploy whenever you need them gives you the means to better handle difficult situations and be more prepared in the future.

Dementia affects each person in a unique way and changes different parts of the brain at different points in the progression of the condition. Further, different types of dementia tend to have different symptoms. Researchers and doctors still don’t know enough about how these diseases work to predict what will happen exactly.

If you’re providing care for a parent, or another family member, you may be faced with a wide array of challenges. Resisting care and general stubbornness are two hallmarks of dementia. Familiar aspects of life like getting them to the doctor, gaining their cooperation or convincing them to bathe and brush their teeth can become a challenge.

On top of this, as they’re not always able to clearly communicate their needs, people with dementia may lash out when they’re afraid, frustrated, angry, or are in pain or discomfort. This can be truly terrifying. If you’re unsure about how to deal with stubbornness or aggression, you’re not alone. Here are some tips that may help you handle these situations:

Try to understand

Think about what could be behind your loved one’s stubborn or aggressive behavior. For instance, they could be frustrated with their own memory loss or confusion. Stimuli from the environment, their health, or their medications can also contribute. Taking time to ask them questions about how they’re feeling can go a long way. As soon as you can identify what prompts the behavior, you will be able to deal with the situation properly.

Calm the environment

A noisy or busy environment could trigger aggressive behavior. If you find anything that could make your loved one feel agitated, such as too much noise or too many people in the room, try to calm the environment.

Always communicate clearly

The last thing you want to do is add to your parent or senior loved one’s confusion or irritation. Less information is sometimes more. Be straightforward and easy to understand. Try to avoid power struggles.

Ask simple, answerable questions

Ask one question at a time, ideally with a yes or no answer. Avoid open-ended questions. Instead, give them options. For instance, instead of asking what they would like to drink, ask them if they want tea or coffee.

Create a routine

Having a consistent routine can remove some of the uncertainty and confusion in a loved one’s life. Try to do things such as taking medication or having meals at the same time each day.

Listen more than you talk

Listen to what’s bothering your loved one and why they might be upset. Sometimes you may have to read between the lines. Try to validate their feelings. If they’re scared, reassure them and tell them they’re safe with you.

Be prepared with realistic expectations

Reminding yourself that challenging behavior and aggressive outbursts are normal symptoms of dementia helps you respond in a calm and supportive way. Always remember, it has nothing to do with you or your relationship with your loved one.

Use a gentle tone and reassuring touch

When your older adult gets upset, take a deep breath and stay as calm as possible. If you’re upset, that unintentionally continues escalating the tense emotions in the situation. Staying calm and breathing slowly helps to reduce everyone’s anger and agitation. Speak gently and keep your voice soft, reassuring, and positive.

If you’re taking care of a parent with dementia, these episodes can easily become too overwhelming. This is when most people seek professional help. Sometimes it can be difficult to decide how much you can do on your own and when you should consider external help.

Take our 5 Minute Home Care Assessment to assess six key warning signs from eating habits to personal hygiene and behavior to be able to confidently take the next step in caring for your loved one with dementia.

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