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How to Respond to Combative Behavior in People with Dementia

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Updated January 24, 2013

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What Is Combative Behavior?

Combative Behavior is a term often used to describe physical aggression in people with dementia. Combativeness can include hitting, pushing, kicking, spitting, and grabbing.

What Causes Combative Behavior?

The most common trigger is the provision of care. Because of memory loss and confusion, people with dementia might not understand why you're trying to help them, and begin to display challenging behaviors.

It might help you understand the cause if you picture the day through their eyes.

Imagine this scenario:

Someone you don't know or recognize approaches you and tells you it's time to take a shower. She starts reaching toward you and tries to remove your clothes. You don't feel like taking a shower, and don't know why she's bugging you. It's cold, you're not getting out of your clothes, and you're fine just the way you are.

Or, how about this?

You're peacefully dozing off in your chair, when suddenly a stranger wakes you up and tells you that you have to eat now. You're not hungry and you don't want to get up, but she starts tying a belt around your waist and keeps telling you to get up. You try to push her hands away, but she persists in badgering you to get out of that chair. She then brings a bunch of food to you, and starts trying to feed you. By now, you're really irritated.

Here's one more common occurrence:

You put on your clothes for the day, unaware that these are the same ones from yesterday, and that they're badly in need of washing and deodorizing. You recognize your daughter, but she starts to act as if she's your boss and tells you that you have to change your clothes. You tell her "No", but she doesn't listen. She continues to repeat some baloney about why she wants you to change clothes. You've already told her, but she's not listening to you. Then she comes up to you and starts taking your arm out of your sleeve. That's the last straw.

How Would You Feel?

Perhaps one or more of those scenarios sounds familiar to you. Maybe you've seen your loved one or patient look at you warily and then become combative, pushing you away. Looking at it from the other perspective can often help caregivers be more compassionate and understanding of why people with dementia might resist care or become combative.

How Can Caregivers Help Reduce Combative Behavior?

  • Don't Rush

    Allow plenty of time when helping your loved one get ready for the day.

  • Talk Before Trying

    Reminisce about something you know he's interested in before you attempt to physically care for the person.

  • Take a Time Out

    If it's not going well, ensure the safety of your loved one and come back in 15 minutes.

  • Less Is More

    Is what you're trying to help her with really necessary? Then continue to work on it. But, if you can let something else go that's not as important for the day, both you and your loved one will benefit if you pick your battles.

  • Offer a Familiar Item to Hold

    Sometimes, a person can be reassured and calmed simply by holding her stuffed kitten or favorite photo album.

  • Don't Argue

    It's never helpful to argue with someone who has Alzheimer's or another dementia. Rather, use distraction or just listen.

  • Remain Calm

    Even though you might feel frustrated, your family member will respond better if you stay calm and relaxed. If your tone becomes escalated and irritated, it's very likely your loved one's will, too. People who have dementia often reflect back to their family members the emotions that they see.

Sources:

Alzheimer's Association. Aggression and Anger. Accessed December 22, 2012. http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-aggression-anger.asp

University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Comprehensive Services on Aging (COPSA). Institute for Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders. COPSA Fact Sheet. Combativeness. Accessed December 22, 2012. ubhc.umdnj.edu/copsa/info/Combativeness.doc

Workforce Safety & Insurance. Combative Behavior. Accessed December 22, 2012. www.workforcesafety.com/safety/sops/CombativeBehavior.pdf - 10k - 2003-09-09

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