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Expert Blog

What should I do when a loved one with dementia is having a panic attack?

June 22, 2012

When a person with dementia is having a panic attack, what should you do? Ask what he is afraid of or reassure him that everything is okay? He will be 88 years old this year.

Trying to explain away fears in the middle of a panic attack - when your family member's heart might be racing, breathing is shallow, and feelings of terror are overwhelming - almost never works. While it's happening, be supportive and comforting. Repeat simple phrases like "you're going to be okay" or "we'll take care of the problem." Be lavish with your hugs.

Panic attacks can come out of nowhere, but when they are associated with dementia, there is often a trigger. When the attack is over and your loved one is calm, look back on the situation. What might have caused it?

Could it be something in the environment, such as a visit from a neighborhood pet or some overly active children? Is the room dark and full of shadows, confusing or scaring the person?

Was the person afraid of being abandoned or afraid that something has happened to a family member? The profound forgetfulness and confusion of dementia can trigger panic attacks. Reminders and reassuring words can help in these situations.

Could it have to do with the time of day, especially if the attacks seem to occur at the same time? One family whose mother was panicky in the evening found that things improved when they increased the indoor lighting and kept the lights on bright, particularly during dusk and late afternoon.

Visual hallucinations common with Lewy Body dementia can also frighten the person and cause panic. In these cases, ask the person to tell you more about what he or she is seeing and make an appropriate response. For example, if he is seeing a stranger in the backyard, let him know that you will investigate things and make sure the house is locked up. You might even add some reassuring words, "It's probably just that sweet neighborhood boy who likes to explore."

I recall a person I worked with years ago in the Best Friends adult day center in Lexington, Kentucky. He would have panic attacks or angry spells but we could often see them coming. When we began to see his mood change or darken, a quick pat on the back, ice-cream cone or some special attention would stop the behavior before it escalated.

Behavior like panic attacks can accompany dementia. When you respond in a thoughtful, creative and confident manner it will help calm the person and help him feel safe, secure and valued.

Thoughts and stories from others

  1. April 28, 2017 at 03:01 am
    Posted by Carol Carmody

    My sister has had dementia for the last 6 years and today when I visited her she had what the staff called a panic attack which I have never seen before in her.The scariest part of this is the look on her face as if to say help me Her symptoms were breathing really fast and a terrifying look on her face eventually they gave her oxygen which they said would help Can this be an ongoing occurance with dementia patients I am sure this was as frightening for my sister as me
  2. November 3, 2016 at 02:34 am
    Posted by Debbie

    My Mum is in the late stages of Alzheimers. She is not mobile and can not communicate, she is also blind. Just lately she has started having panic attacks. It seems to come at random times - napping, eating, just sitting, and has had up to 5 in an hour. She will have a look of terror on her face, heart rate jumps, heavy breathing, and mumbles or even cries out. We can not work out what the trigger is. We have not moved, she is in familiar surroundings and with familiar people. Is this normal for the late stage? We talk and console her and she settles down.

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