Coping with dementia behaviour changes

Dementia can have a very big effect on the person affected. They may fear their loss of memory and thinking skills, but they also fear the loss of who they are.

They may also find they don't understand what's going on or why they feel they're not in control of what's happening around them or to them. All of this can affect their behaviour.

Common changes in behaviour

In the middle to later stages of most types of dementia, a person may start to behave differently. This can be distressing for both the person with dementia and those who care for them.

Some common changes in behaviour include:

  • repeating the same question or activity over and over again
  • restlessness - pacing up and down, wandering, fidgeting
  • night-time waking and sleep disturbance
  • following a partner or spouse around everywhere
  • loss of self-confidence - this may show as apathy or disinterest in their usual activities

If you're caring for someone who's showing these behaviours, it's important to try to understand why they're behaving like this, which isn't always easy.

You may find it helpful to remember that these behaviours may be a way of trying to communicate how they're feeling.

Sometimes these behaviours aren't a dementia symptom. They can be a result of frustration with not being understood or with their environment, which they no longer find familiar but confusing.

How to cope with common changes in behaviour

Although changes in behaviour can be difficult to deal with, it can help to work out if there are any triggers.

For example:

  • Do some behaviours happen at a certain time of day?
  • Is the person finding the home too noisy or cluttered?
  • Do these changes happen when a person is being challenged or asked to do something they may not want to do?

Keeping a diary for a week or two can help identify these triggers.

If the change in behaviour comes on suddenly, the cause may be a health problem. The person may be in pain or discomfort from constipation or an infection.

Ask your GP for an assessment to rule out or treat any underlying cause.

Keeping an active social life, continuing with activities the person with dementia has enjoyed, or finding new ones, and regular gentle exercise can all help to reduce behaviours that are out of character,

Read more about activities for dementia.

Other things that can help include:

  • providing reassurance
  • a quiet, calming environment
  • activities that give pleasure and confidence - such as music or dancing, including Singing for the Brain
  • animal-assisted therapy
  • massage

Find out what activities are in your area with Dementia Connect.

Try these tips to cope with some of the more common changes in behaviour.

Remember also that it's not easy being the person supporting or caring for a person with behaviour changes. If you're finding things difficult, ask for support from your GP.

Repeating the same question or activity

This may be a result of memory loss where the person can't remember what they've said or done.

It can be frustrating for the carer, but it's important to remember that the person isn't being deliberately difficult.

Try to:

  • be tactful and patient
  • help the person find the answer themselves - for example, if they keep asking the time, buy an easy-to-read clock and keep it in a visible place
  • look for any underlying theme, such as the person believing they're lost, and offer reassurance
  • offer general reassurance - for example, that they don't need to worry about that appointment as all the arrangements are in hand
  • encourage someone to talk about something they like talking about - for example, a period of time or an event they enjoyed

Restlessness and fidgeting

People with dementia often develop restless behaviours, such as pacing up and down, wandering out of the home and agitated fidgeting. This phase doesn't usually last for long.

Try to:

  • make sure the person has plenty to eat and drink
  • have a daily routine, including daily walks
  • accompany them on a walk to shops or consider tracking devices and alarm systems (telecare) to keep them safe
  • give them something to occupy their hands if they fidget a lot, such as worry beads or a box of items that mean something to them

Sleep disturbance

Dementia can cause problems with the person's body clock, or sleep-wake cycle.

A person with dementia may get up repeatedly during the night, unaware that it's night time.

This can be particularly hard on carers, as their sleep is disturbed, too.

Try to:

  • provide plenty of activity and exposure to daylight during the day
  • make sure the bedroom is comfortable and provide a nightlight or blackout blinds according to the person's needs
  • cut down on caffeine and alcohol in the evening

Following a partner or carer around

Dementia makes people feel insecure and anxious. They may "shadow" their partner or carer as they need constant reassurance they're not alone and they're safe.

They may also ask for people who died many years ago, or ask to go home without realising they're in their own home.

Try to:

  • have the person with you if you're doing chores such as ironing or cooking
  • reassure them that they're safe and secure if they're asking to go home
  • avoid telling them someone died years ago - instead, talk to them about that period in their life

Loss of self-confidence

Dementia can make people feel less confident about going out or doing other activities. This may seem like they've lost interest in people or activities they usually enjoy.

Try to:

  • remember they may not have lost interest in an activity - instead, it may be that they feel they'll have trouble coping with it
  • reassure them the activity, or getting there, will be straightforward
  • explain clearly who they may be seeing
  • consider simpler activities or social occasions - for example, joining in a conversation among a large group of people may be more difficult to follow

Find more tips from the Alzheimer's Society on coping with behaviour changes (PDF, 1.89Mb).

Aggressive behaviour in dementia

In the later stages of dementia, a significant number of people with dementia will develop what's known as behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD).

The symptoms of BPSD can include:

  • increased agitation
  • aggression - shouting or screaming, verbal abuse, and sometimes physical abuse
  • delusions (unusual beliefs not based on reality)
  • hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that don't exist)

These types of behaviours are very distressing for the carer and for the person with dementia.

It's very important to ask your doctor to rule out or treat any underlying causes, such as:

  • uncontrolled pain
  • untreated depression
  • infections, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • side effects of medicines

If the person you're caring for behaves in an aggressive way, try to stay calm and avoid confrontation. You may have to leave the room for a while.

If none of the coping strategies works, an antipsychotic medicine can be prescribed as a short-term treatment. This should be prescribed by a consultant psychiatrist.

If you're looking after someone with dementia

Your needs as a carer are as important as the person you're caring for.

To help care for yourself:

  • join a local carers' support group or a specialist dementia organisation - for more details, call the Carers Wales helpline on 0808 808 7777 (open on Mondays and Tuesday between 10am and 4pm)
  • call Dementia UK's Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline free on 0800 888 6678 to talk to a registered specialist nurse; lines are open 9am to 9pm Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm at weekends
  • share your experiences with other carers on online forums, such as Alzheimer's Society's Talking Point and the Carers UK forum
  • try to make some time for yourself - if it's difficult to leave the person alone, ask if someone can be with them for a while, either a friend or relative, or someone from a support group
  • consult your GP if you're feeling low or depressed as you may benefit from counselling or other talking therapies

Read more about caring for someone with dementia.