We all get angry now and then. We can be angry at a person, like a friend whose chronic tardiness makes us late for a movie. We can be angry at a thing, like an unreliable car that breaks down again and again. We can be angry at ourselves for not sticking to a diet and our resolution to lose 10 pounds before summer!

Persons with Alzheimer’s disease and the other dementias have good days and bad days, too. Yet the memory loss and confusion associated with dementia can trigger bouts of anger that can be distressing to a family member simply trying to do his or her best.

A woman stares at us.

“Some days Mom is so sweet and appreciative, but other days she is angry at me and even hits out,” says Jean P., one caregiver who feels frustrated by her mother’s dementia. “Triggers like trying to get her into the shower are easy to understand, but sometimes her dark mood seems to come out of nowhere. Why doesn’t she know I’m doing my best?”

“Anger is a form of communication,” says Jeff Huber, President of Home Instead Senior Care®, an international provider of Alzheimer’s in home care services. “The person with dementia may not be able to tell us what they want or need. Anger is one way for them to release their frustration and emotion.”

When you’re facing a loved one who’s unexpectedly angry, try following these steps:

  1. Take a break. Sometimes just pausing and coming back in 5 or 10 minutes works. Try saying, “Mom, I’m so sorry I misunderstood what you wanted for breakfast. I’ll be back in a few minutes to check in with you.”
  2. Look for triggers. Think about what happened right before the outburst. Can you detect a pattern to avoid in the future? Some persons with dementia get very tired in the afternoon, for example, and may get angry if you try to engage them in activities then. Line up more activities in the morning and give them a break in the afternoon.
  3. Watch for pain or illness. The person with dementia may have a toothache, arthritis pain, or simply be sick. Dementia expert David Troxel recommends watching for abrupt changes. “If a happy-go-lucky person is suddenly moody and angry, that is usually a good sign that it’s a physical health issue.”
  4. Bring up a favorite subject from the person’s life story. Talking about the person’s childhood, favorite foods, or experiences can sometimes change a bad mood into a good one.
  5. Apologizing is tough, but it’s sometimes the best response to anger—even if it’s not your fault! Saying, “Dad, I’m so sorry that I misunderstood you. I’ll do better next time. I love you” can turn that anger into a smile.

It’s important to share these tips with other professionals you may work with to care for your loved one, says Troxel, who helped develop a training program for Home Instead CAREGiversSM that equips them to create a positive, joyful environment through activities, loving support and good communication. “A therapeutic environment like this tends to bring out the best in persons with dementia and can reduce incidences of anger,” Troxel notes.

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To find a caregiver in your area, contact your local Home Instead Senior Care office.