Dementia support: understanding and responding to distressed behaviour

Dementia is a progressive condition that can affect a person's behaviour. Some people with a dementia show distressed behaviour. They might become angry, aggressive or behave out of character. If you're their carer, you can do things to understand and support them when you notice distressed behaviour.

Common signs of distressed behaviour in dementia 

Dementia is a progressive condition that can affect a person's behaviour. Distressed behaviour can occur in some people with a dementia

Common forms of distressed behaviour are:

  • shouting
  • screaming
  • using offensive language

This can include continually calling out for someone, shouting the same word or repetitive screaming.

Causes of distressed behaviour

There are different causes of distressed behaviour, including:

  • fear or embarrassment
  • frustration with a situation
  • depression
  • no other way to express themselves
  • loss of judgement
  • loss of inhibitions and self-control
  • they might be in pain but cannot communicate this effectively

Responding to distressed behaviour

If you are caring for a person with dementia and they show distressed behaviour, it might be helpful to:

  • note what has triggered their distressed behaviour - if you can identify these triggers, you may be able to avoid them
  • avoid arguing or having an aggressive pose when they're distressed as this could increase distressed behaviour
  • leave the room or retreat from the situation
  • be calm and remember that even if the aggression seems personal or intentional, it’s because of the distress
  • behave normally with them when they're calm again to help you both move on
  • use a night light to help them feel anxious during the night and less likely to call out

Drug treatment for dementia-related behaviour 

If the person’s behaviour is harmful to themselves or others, and all methods of calming them have been tried, a doctor may prescribe medication.

If you want information about drugs to help manage behavioural symptoms of dementia, or you’re concerned about the side effects of medication, speak to their GP.

Encouraging someone with a dementia to communicate 

Dementia affects a person's ability to remember and understand basic everyday facts including:

  • names
  • dates
  • places

All behaviour is a form of communication. A person living with a dementia may be less able to tell what they need or what they are feeling so they try to say this through behaviour.

By communicating well with a person living with a dementia, you can help increase their understanding and wellbeing.

Where to find help and support 

People living with a dementia can experience mood swings as they cope with their condition. If you have a dementia, you might feel sad or angry sometimes, or scared and frustrated as the disease progresses.

As a carer, seeing their behaviour change can also be difficult and distressing.

It is important to remember there is help and support. It can help to talk to someone about your worries.

This could be a family member or friend, a member of your local dementia support group or your GP, who can refer you to a counsellor in your area.

You can find more information and support services from the following organisations, see also ‘more useful links section’:

The Public Health Agency has also produced a range of information to help support people with a dementia, their families and friends.

This information includes the following publications:

Dementia apps library

The ‘Apps4Dementia’ library is a digital service which groups together safe, trusted apps to provide information and guidance on the condition.

There a number of apps that offer support, self-care of symptoms and enable users to carry on with their day-to-day activities for as long as possible.

More useful links 

The information on this page was adapted from original content on the NHS website.

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