Alzheimer’s Behaviors Can Signal Unmet Needs

adult-children-with-elderWhen caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, family members often use the word “behaviors” to describe some of the more difficult actions their loved ones exhibit. For caregivers, they can be distressing to watch and to try to manage. Some behaviors can put both the person with dementia and the caregiver at risk of injury. A few examples include pacing, agitation, paranoia, wandering, hallucinations, and aggression. Experts encourage caregivers to try to separate the behaviors from negative feelings for their loved one by reminding them to “blame the disease, not the person.”

What Causes Behavioral Problems for Those with Alzheimer’s?

While understanding the cause of these disruptive activities and distressing outbursts has been well examined, they still are not understood. Researchers used to believe that they were caused by the physical damage Alzheimer’s causes to the brain. More recent studies, however, seem to indicate other factors may contribute. They include:

  • An undiagnosed illness or physical pain
  • Hunger or thirst
  • Discomfort from being too hot or too cold
  • Need to use the restroom
  • Environmental factors such as too much noise or visual stimulation
  • Being overly tired
  • The need for attention and security

When an older adult living with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia is experiencing one of these issues, they act out in the only way they still can in an effort to have these needs met.

How can family caregivers figure out what needs are unmet for a senior with Alzheimer’s disease?

In some instances, you can help figure out what someone with Alzheimer’s needs by leading them to the bathroom or taking them to the kitchen to show them a glass of water or a piece of fruit. Pointing to a blanket on the back of the sofa might help if they are cold. Feel their forehead and face. Do they feel hot or clammy? A fever can signal an infection that might be triggering difficult behaviors.

Other ways to help manage behaviors include:

  • Keeping activity concentrated in the first half of the day. This can help prevent them from becoming overly tired and agitated in the evening.
  • Softly playing relaxation music in the background can help keep them calm throughout the day.
  • Providing visual cues around the house also can be a solution. For example, a picture of a toilet with an arrow pointing toward the bathroom can be placed on the hallway wall to help them find the bathroom.
  • Taking a leisurely walk early in the afternoon can combat boredom and help them sleep better.
  • Creating a safe, indoor area for them to pace when they are agitated and need to keep moving.
  • Avoiding caffeinated foods and beverages later in the afternoon and especially near bedtime.
  • Learning good communication techniques. For example, approaching a senior loved one who has Alzheimer’s from the front while softly saying their name is best. People often lose their peripheral vision as the disease progresses and can be easily startled—and possibly strike out—when approached from the side or the back.

The Alzheimer’s Association has great information on Managing Dementia Behaviors if you would like to learn more.