Safety for Caregiver Spouses: How to Manage Challenging Behaviors

Considering the changes one goes through as dementia progresses—the loss of memories, confusion, sensory problems, diminishing abilities, the struggle to communicate—it’s no wonder that challenging behaviors evolve in response to their ever-changing world. For the spouse of a loved one with memory loss, dealing with challenging behaviors such as aggression, suspicion and delusions can be emotionally trying and, in some cases, dangerous for both partners’ safety.

“More than just cuing their memory or helping them with daily tasks, the role of a caregiver for someone with dementia can mean learning to manage seriously challenging behaviors,” says Diane Reier, Lifestyle Specialist at Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights, a senior living community in Prospect Heights, IL. “If the primary caregiver is the person’s spouse, they’re likely to endure the majority of these difficult behaviors. Especially when the couple is isolated at home, it’s crucial for the caregiver to know how to manage such behaviors to keep themselves and their loved one out of harm’s way.”

Responding to Aggressive Behavior

Those suffering from memory loss may display aggression due to physical, emotional or environmental factors. Because of their cognitive decline, it’s not always possible to reason with the person the way you would with someone healthy. Memory care experts such as those at the Alzheimer’s Association® suggest guidelines for responding to a loved one’s aggressive behavior in ways that will help avoid a violent or dangerous situation. If your spouse becomes upset and aggressive towards you, experts advise following these steps:

  1. Identify the Cause – Try to determine what your loved one is reacting to. What happened right before they became aggressive or violent? Is something different in their environment? Do you notice any patterns during the times they get upset?
  2. Stay Calm – Try not to shout back at an aggressive person with dementia, as this will probably only distress them even more. Use a calm tone of voice as you speak to them. Often, they will mirror your calm demeanor and start to relax.
  3. Use Distraction – Aggressive behavior may wane as the person with dementia loses track of why they are upset. As a form of distraction from the trigger, change the subject or scenery or try to engage them in an activity they enjoy. Sometimes their favorite song can ease their mind.
  4. Avoid Restraint – Try to avoid using physical force or restraint when your loved one is angry. Determine whether either of you are in danger and, unless the situation is severe (e.g., they are trying to harm you or themselves), use other methods to calm them down.
  5. Call 911 – In serious cases, calling 911 may be a necessary last resort, especially if your loved one has become violent and one of you is hurt. Also, if your loved one is acting violent because they feel threatened, seeing a person in uniform may help them feel safe as well as mitigate the scene.

Suspicion & Delusions

As with aggressive behaviors, loved ones who experience suspicion or delusions as symptoms of dementia may put themselves and their caregiver spouse in possible danger. A loved one’s condition may convince them that you are trying to harm them or will abandon them. Delusional behavior could cause them to act in a way that could lead them into a dangerous situation. Both kinds of behaviors require careful management.

  • Don’t try to argue – Let them express their thoughts and listen carefully to what is troubling them. Try your best to meet them in their reality. Then reassure them and let them know that you care.
  • Offer simple answers – Respond to their concerns and share your thoughts, but keep your answers simple. Lengthy explanations or complicated reasons may only overwhelm them more.
  • Redirect their attention – You may be able to coax them out of their paranoia by distracting them with another activity. Ask them to help you tidy the room or start a new project.
  • Keep duplicates – If your loved one frequently misplaces the same item and gets upset when it’s lost, purchase a few duplicate items, if possible. For example, keep extra pairs of reading glasses on hand if your loved one is always losing hers.

In regard to all symptoms of dementia, it helps to remember that your loved one’s behavior is because of their disease. They are struggling to live in a world that ceases to make sense, and aggression or delusions might be their instinctual way of defending themselves. Don’t take what your loved one says or does during an episode of dementia-driven behavior personally. Remind yourself that it is not your loved one acting this way, but the dementia instead.

It also helps to remember that you are not alone. Other spouses are experiencing similar struggles and learning to cope with aggressive loved ones as well. Joining a support group for caregivers of loved ones with dementia can help you deal with the challenges you face.

Support When You Need It

If you ever feel as if you don’t know where to turn as you care for your spouse, the experts at Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights are here to offer guidance and support. “We can help you learn new techniques for calming your loved one and preventing triggers,” says Reier. “Our memory care team has years of experience and knowledge in dealing with difficult symptoms and behaviors in dementia patients. We’re here to help you whenever you need it.”

We Would Love to Hear from You!

If you have comments or questions about our blog, we’d love to hear from you. We also welcome you to share any caregiving insights or experiences in our comments section.

Live Well. Age Well. Be Well.

Offering Independent, Assisted Living and A Knew Day Memory Support, Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights is a distinctive senior living community designed to offer seniors residing in the Chicago Northwest Suburbs area a fresh alternative to “typical” senior living communities.

Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights provides residents with the ideal balance of personalized support, dignified privacy and enhanced independence complemented by luxurious amenities and our life-enriching, award-winning VIVA!SM programming by Pathway to Living®.

Managed by Pathway to Living®, an innovator in senior living, Aspired Living® offers the choice of a private studio or a one- or two-bedroom apartment and the beauty of a brand new community, stunningly appointed and decorated for unsurpassed comfort and style by the award-winning senior living design firm, Thoma-Holec Design, Inc.

For more information, please call Diane at 847-243-6920.

Disclaimer: The articles and tip sheets on this website are offered by Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights for general informational and educational purposes and do not constitute legal or medical advice. For legal or medical advice, please contact your attorney or physician.