June is “Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month,” designated by the Alzheimer’s Association to help raise awareness about the disease and show support for the millions of people worldwide living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

As caregivers for those with Alzheimer’s, it can be helpful to understand why various behaviors may happen, said Kristine Johnson, CDP, a dementia specialist with Hartford HealthCare’s Center for Healthy Aging at Backus Hospital.

“Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect parts of the brain that control a person’s ability to manage their own responses,” Johnson said. “It’s not something they are doing on purpose. Dementia can cause a person to act in different ways. These behaviors can be different for each person throughout the stages of the disease.”

Common changes in the person’s personality and behavior may include:

  • Getting upset, worried and angry more easily.
  • Acting depressed or disinterested in things.
  • Hiding things or believing other people are hiding things.
  • Wandering away from the home.
  • Pacing.
  • Hitting, kicking or biting.
  • Misunderstanding or confusion of what they see or what they hear.
  • May become more focused on sex.
  • May stop bathing.
  • May want to wear the same clothes every day.

Some reasons why these behaviors may happen:

  • There are changes taking place in the brain.
  • They are not understanding what is happening around them.
  • The task is too hard.
  • They are in pain.
  • They have trouble communicating.

Sometimes these behaviors can be linked to the person’s physical surroundings, Johnson noted. The area or room they are in may be cluttered, or feel too wide open. There could be too much noise, which can increase stress, or there could be a lack of structure around the day or event which creates confusion.

But sometimes the reason could be physical. A behavior change could be a side effect of a new medication, or the result of an illness or infection such as a urinary tract infection or stomach bug. It could be as simple as the person being dehydrated, constipated, tired or just uncomfortable.

It’s important to rule out a medical reason, especially if the change in behavior happens quickly or unexpectedly. If the behavior isn’t medically based, there are strategies to help relieve the situation.

  • Pay attention to what the person is saying both verbally and non-verbally.
  • Validate their feelings and try to distract them.
  • Refocus their attention whenever possible.
  • Promote a sense of safety and security and offer reassurance often.
  • If the person with dementia is upset, sometimes saying you’re sorry may help.

“Dealing with challenging behaviors is a process,” Johnson said. “Try to think of it as a puzzle instead of a problem. This will help reduce the negativity of the situation. There are no quick solutions to manage challenging behaviors. Patience and creativity are helpful traits when caring for a person living with dementia.”