6 Ways to Defuse Anger in Alzheimer’s Patients

Some days caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is harder than others. There are lots of things that can make the day hard, but the thing I dread the most is my mom’s anger over something that didn’t even happen. And it’s worse when she directs that anger and aggression at me. Today was one of those really hard days.
For my mom, these days seem to have no antecedent. She’s just anxious and out of sorts. She’ll wring her hands over and over and perseverate on something that’s upsetting her. And most of the time the thing that’s provoking her anxiety is complete fantasy. Or, which can be even worse, is something that has tiny bits and pieces of truth from various events and decades morphed into some fictitious current event that’s making her sling accusations and hate. It’s pretty awful.
Alzheimer’s Fueled Nastiness
Today she directed her Alzheimer’s fueled anxiety and nastiness at me. It was all over some conversation that never even took place. Yep, pure fiction.
She can get crazy angry. I’m talking downright hateful. And will say the most hurtful things. Because in her mind, whatever she’s upset about really happened. Today was an especially hurtful word filled day.
I have a few go-to caregiver strategies when she gets like this. I do my best to keep my cool, remind myself with each breath that it’s the Alzheimer’s talking, and keep trying to get her off the subject. But today getting her off the topic wasn’t happening quickly. She kept escalating. And the hateful things she was saying to me began to take a toll on this tired, caregiving daughter.
I found myself wishing her brain would hit that all familiar reset button so we could have the conversation about what day it is again for the umpteenth time today.
Please, just ask me what day it is.
The anger and hurtful words filled the room until I lost my cool and uttered, “Mama, stop. You’re confused. That never happened.”
I knew it wouldn’t help. Why did I say it?
She doubled down and got angrier and nastier.
I know when she gets like this to remain calm and detach myself from the hurtful words. I know it’s the Alzheimer’s. But sometimes I fail.
I made the situation today temporarily worse, but then logic finally took over; I think out of desperation. I turned off my emotions and started implementing strategies that have worked with her in the past.
Strategies to Defuse Anger in Alzheimer’s Patients
1. Distract and redirect – Change the subject or start a new activity. You’ll see this recommended over and over when you read about Alzheimer’s. It’s a fantastic strategy… when it works. At my mom’s middle stage Alzheimer’s distracting and redirecting is definitely not a sure thing though.
2. Leave the area – Sometimes I can leave the room, wait about 5 minutes, and re-enter. If Mom has forgotten, it’s like a brand new day. If she hasn’t forgotten, then she’s just had 5 minutes to stew on it.
3. Agree, even if it’s not true – This is another one you’ll see all the experts recommend. I use this strategy for things that don’t really matter. Because arguing never helps. Ask me how I know. But when my mom is falsely accusing me or someone else of something horrible, I just can’t bring myself to agree. Because in my mom’s case I’ve then validated her delusion. And she sure seems to be able to remember when that happens!
4. Stop engaging – Sometimes redirecting and distracting doesn’t work for us, and agreeing isn’t an option. When this happens, I stop responding and start working on cleaning or organizing something. I try to look busy and wait for Mom to forget.
5. Focus on the fact that Mom is upset, rather than the details of why she’s upset – Trying to reason with my mom on the specifics of the situation only makes matters worse. So I avoid the particulars while acknowledging her feelings. “I can see you’re really upset. I love you. What can I do for you right now?” Then I’ll get her something to drink or eat. I carefully avoid the details while acknowledging her frustration. Of course, this one doesn’t work if I’m the target of her anger.
6. Change the atmosphere – I look for ways to give Mom different things to see, hear, and smell. I’ll open (or close) the shades, turn the television on (or off), spray some air freshener, or turn the air up (or down). Sometimes it’s enough to reset her thoughts.
I was finally able to get Mom redirected today, and when I did the anger and aggression disappeared. I had to go through my list of strategies more than a couple of times, but I think changing the sheets on her bed was today’s turning point.
She seems fine now.
I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.
I’m just hoping nothing reminds her of it tomorrow.