Managing Difficult Behaviors: How to Mitigate Elderly Agitation


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If your loved one suffers from a disorder that affects their mood and behavior, it can often be as challenging (if not more) than the physical aspects of the disorder. Many conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, are notorious for making sufferers unrecognizable in their actions and personality. Not only can this be emotionally devastating, but it also causes problems on a practical level. It can leave you at a loss about how to get your loved one to cooperate with feeding, bathing, and health care regimens.
But there are ways to make things easier – for both of you. Here we explain what you need to know about elderly agitation, and the best ways to cope, keep your loved one calm, and maintain their safety.

What is agitation?

The word “agitation” refers to behavioral symptoms that include aggression, combativeness, shouting, hyperactivity and lack of inhibition. These are the symptoms that tend to make sufferers uncooperative with care. They can also lead to accidental self-injury and verbal abuse or physical abuse, usually with caregivers.

What’s the first step in addressing agitation?

The first step is to have your loved one’s geriatric specialist do a complete diagnostic workup. This will give the practitioner a better idea of the medical factors involved in their agitation. A thorough history, physical exam, and lab tests will give important clues about which treatment plan to formulate. It will also help the doctor rule out causes for agitation that are unrelated to dementia. These can include other physical disorders, infection, medication side effects, and more.

The importance of environment

Agitation can be treated by making changes in the patient, and also in their environment. In fact, a serene environment is often key to coping with behavioral symptoms. Remember — what’s calm and peaceful to you may be too overstimulating for an agitated person. Loud T.V.’s, radios, and bright lights can make them hyper and unsettled. Simply changing things like the noise level and temperature can make a big difference. These are some of the first things in their environment that you’ll want to address.

A helping hand

You may think that when an agitated person is acting out, they just want to be left alone. Yet sometimes, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, isolating dementia patients can even be harmful. Contact between a sufferer and caregiver has actually been shown to have myriad benefits for the former.
Even more important than the caretaker’s actions is their demeanor. Interactions that are supportive and reassuring offer comfort, and may put the patient at ease. If you think that even a gentle touch or conversation might be overstimulating, try sitting quietly beside the agitated person. Your mere presence may provide the calming influence they need.

The role medication plays

Medications to alleviate the symptoms of agitation are sometimes considered after other treatment methods have been explored. Tranquilizers such as Haldol are usually employed short-term when the agitation includes injurious behaviors. This is done to minimize the threat that the patient may inadvertently pose to his or her safety, as well as that of others.
Other medications, such as Risperdal, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are additional options — typically without the side effects seen in medications like Haldol. Other possible drugs include benzodiazepines like Ativan and Xanax, as well as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety agents.

Elderly agitation can be managed

Treating elderly agitation can often be a long process. But the good news is that after a bit of trial and error, you can find out what triggers/alleviates your loved one’s symptoms. The goal is not to eliminate them completely (which is usually not possible), but to manage them. Ideally, you and their physician and caretakers will come up with a plan that improves their quality of life, and makes both of you feel more at peace on a daily basis.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff members at the Institute on Aging are here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

Institute on Aging

Institute on Aging

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