When Alzheimer's Turns Violent

When I lost my mom to Alzheimer's disease, one of the things I vowed was that I wouldn’t wait to fulfill my “bucket list” items. At the moment, I’m spending the summer with my family in New York City, where we’re seeing as many Broadway shows as we can - checking off another item on that bucket list. Seeing yet another Tony Award-winning show was part of our itinerary this week.

I’d heard that the play was full of humor, that it cast a spotlight on family dynamics and sometimes the darkness that lies beneath, that it was earning rave reviews and had a stellar cast. What I did not know was that the play features a grandmother with a dementia-related illness. I don't think one character in the play ever uttered the word “Alzheimer's,” but I know Alzheimer's when I see it.

One actress in the production was not only playing the role of the beloved family matriarch, she was also accurately portraying every bit of the last six months of my mom's life. Each behavioral detail was spot-on, right down to the words she repeated over and over. It was eerie how much she looked and sounded like Mom. While my fellow audience members were no doubt taking in the play as a whole and watching the other characters, I couldn’t take my eyes off of this woman.

Towards the end of the play, the character has a violent outburst. That explosive behavior was the most striking similarity in the show to my own experience. In my mind, the woman onstage was no longer a character in a play. She became my mother, Fran Nicholson.

That’s because much to my dismay, Mom became increasingly physically aggressive in the last year of her life, culminating in a very violent outburst directed at me. But as I learned later, I was far from alone in experiencing this type of frightening, upsetting behavior.

Anger and aggression among Alzheimer’s patients

Among the many difficult behaviors Alzheimer’s caregivers must cope with, verbal and physical aggression may be one of the most upsetting. Aggressive behavior isn’t uncommon among dementia patients. Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Gary Moak, author of Beat Depression to Stay Healthier and Live Longer, says verbal and physical aggression affects as many as 90 percent of people with dementia at some point during the course of the illness.

“When surroundings and situations that should be familiar instead feel strange and bewildering, people with dementia may become emotionally overwhelmed, and they may lose control,” Moak says. “They may not understand that their caregivers are trying to help them, instead reacting as if they are under attack.”

Tracy Lawrence, founder of long-term care planning service Grand Family Planning, saw her mother become physically aggressive during the later stages of her dementia.

During that time, her mother suffered from a psychotic break that included paranoia and delusions, she says. She would throw punches at fellow residents in her assisted living facility and at one point was ejected from a hospital for threatening staff and other patients with knives, Lawrence recalls.

As with my own mother, the behavior was all the more shocking because it was completely out-of-character.

“It was a big surprise for me because my mom was a very demure lady throughout her life,” Lawrence says.

Causes and triggers

Experts say common triggers for physical aggression in those with dementia include fear, confusion and an inability to communicate verbally, leading to frustration and anger. Some aggression may be the result of other medical problems, such as poorly managed diabetes or urinary tract infections, Moak notes.

This was often the case for Lawrence’s mother, who would lash out physically when she was experiencing discomfort, especially in the form of a urinary tract infection.

“A lot of times when someone has dementia, when they can’t articulate what they want, it makes them angry – so they’re going to express their discomfort and anger in the ways they can, which a lot of times is physical violence,” she explains.

Moak notes that any change in routine can trigger disturbed behavior in dementia patients, including violence. Difficulty with mundane processes that no longer make sense can also prompt a feeling of a loss of control, which then leads to aggression.

“Television programs that the person with dementia cannot understand, kitchen appliances they no longer know how to work, or family conversations they are unable to follow, also can lead to trouble,” Moak explains.

Likewise, if the person with dementia senses that someone around them is anxious, tense or irritable, it can also trigger aggression, he says.

Understanding what triggers your loved one’s outbursts can help you react appropriately and possibly prevent physical aggression. For example, Lawrence and staff at her mother’s assisted living facility noticed that her mother tended to lash out at one particular resident in the community – so the staff ensured they remained separated and her mother’s behavior improved, she says

How to respond to physical aggression

When your loved one with dementia does lash out physically, there are a number of things you can do to help keep you both safe. Dr. Moak recommends the following when a violent outburst due to dementia occurs.

  • Back off, if possible, and avoid acting defensively or angrily yourself
  • Use a calm, soothing voice
  • Resist the urge to convince your loved one that their reasons for aggression are wrong
  • Go along with the person, if necessary, as long as it’s safe to do so. (For example, if your loved one demands to be taken home when they’re already home, offer to take her home, but find a good excuse to delay doing so. If she still insists, take her for a drive around the neighborhood and return home).

The doctor notes that some medications’ side effects may also contribute to aggressive behavior in dementia patients. He advises having your loved one evaluated by a healthcare professional with expertise in dementia management for possible treatments.

According to Moak, the best treatment for aggressive behavior may be in the caregiver’s hands, as they can make changes to their own style and behavior that make for a less stressful environment for their loved one.

“This involves adopting a calm, lighthearted demeanor, learning to adjust style of interacting with the demented person, and learning specific behavioral approaches for troublesome behavior,” he says.

During the play the other night, my 16-year-old son kept reaching out and touching my hand -- he was worried for me. When the show was over, he asked with such concern in his voice, "Are you OK?"

I actually felt fine, but what surprised me was how some of our neighboring audience members turned around and looked at us with somber, knowing smiles - as if they’d been through this experience themselves and needed someone to check if they were OK, too

I'm fairly certain at some point in the next few weeks I will walk past the theater where we watched the play on my way to another show and will absolutely lose it. If I do, just ask if I'm OK. Sometimes I still believe Mom attacked me because I didn't handle this journey correctly for her.


Dayna Steele is Caring.com's Chief Caring Expert and the author of Surviving Alzheimer's with Friends, Facebook, and a Really Big Glass of Wine.

4 months, said...

Hello Dayna. Wow we are living this absolute nightmare.. I have Spent the whole day crying and unfortunately didn't go see my mum(which I normally do on a daily basis) this is a whole day I will never get back.!!!! On 17/09/2017 my mum had a horrific fall in her front garden causing a fractured skull and 3 bleeds to the brain. She was admitted to a ward where she had another fall and another bleed. She was then moved to a nursing home and had another call. 2 weeks later had a ct scan and they found she had had another bleed. She is 10 and a half years altzheimers dimentia diagnised and up to that fall she lived independently.with 4 x carers per day plus the family on a rota, mum is now showing signs of aggression this past 2 weeks to the nursing staff. They want mum out of there. !! We have an mdt meeting this Wednesday to discuss where best mum will move onto. We will discuss chc for mum too. The head manager of the home said that mum needs a forever home which I totally agree with. However the manager of mums home said mum not nursing needs. The consultant said she is.? This is not our fault. We are hanging in the balance with mum and I certainly do not like this feeling. This evening one of my sisters have visited mum and mum has been put into bed by one of the carers. Mum was very upset and she was shaking. It took my sister a while to calm her down.. If we say anything to the carers they always say she was ok when we put her to bed. !!!! This is a cruel illness and I feel it has already taken my mum away from us. I just hope and prey that the time she has left is going to be the best place that we could find for her..

5 months, said...

We are just starting this journey with my mother and ALL of her aggression is directed at my father and his family. She bosses him around and he literally can do nothing right. She talks to him like he is an idiot, scolding him often. It breaks my heart. In addition, she makes up these wild stories about his family and talks about how she hopes they rot in hell. This is not my mom. We have yet to get her good help. She does not think anything is wrong with her and we cannot find a good doctor to work with. Any advice? Is this normal for dementia?

over 1 year, said...

Yes some become violent almost overnight. Mom was always a happy, loving Mother that volunteered at church, senior center, she was crafty, but now wow. I was just there yesterday and she smiled at the nurse, turned to me and said I hate you. after 5 years of therapy due to her condition; I went so what. The aides couldn't believe I said that. I told them my other reply is Whatever. It is always at ME. I put her there. The aides there are shorthanded, and hired off the street w/o education. Some pay attention but most don't. I know there are certain people in there that should be miles away from Mom but I find her nest to them all the time. And she does strike out with her hand at times. She yells at times. She has cursed and she wouldn't even allow me to say oh Gosh. Their personalities Change. Then one day they seem to be perfectly normal and happy. Then they remember when they were little and they think it is today.

over 1 year, said...

This was a fine article. My wife gets aggressive too. She also demands to "go home" and , I also try to divert her attention to another idea. If that doesn't work I take her for a ride to "go home " and pull back into the driveway a few minutes later . Thank goodness I am able to give her 24 hour care because I know all of her needs and how to respond. She is as innocent as a two year old. Her outbursts are from fear pain or confusion . She is also as cute and friendly as a small child too ..so I experience much joy . Our marriage of 47 years is better than ever.

over 1 year, said...


over 1 year, said...

My husband started to exhibit violence several years before the senile dementia really set in.. When the violence started, he also started to hallucinate. The violence was sporadic at first, and just addressed to me: he would throw things and make me pick them up. Once he knocked a glass od red wine off the table and sat and watched while I cleaned the mess off of the light tan carpet. Please look out forearly signes -- a mild anti-psychotic might have done wonders.