Managing Care for Behavioral Symptoms

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2024

Alzheimer's disease damages brain tissues. Over time, this damage causes changes in the brain. Cognitive symptoms such as memory loss occur. A person with Alzheimer's disease can also have behavioral and personality changes. It can be hard to watch a loved one behave differently. Try to remember that these symptoms are a part of the disease. They do not reflect who the person is at their core.1,2

Things that can cause behavioral symptoms include:3

  • Certain medicines
  • Changes in living arrangements
  • Getting a new caregiver
  • Losing vision or hearing
  • Other medical conditions
  • Progression of the disease

Work with your loved one’s doctor to rule out other causes of behavioral symptoms.3

Behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

A person with Alzheimer's can have a variety of behavioral symptoms. Not everyone will have the same symptoms at the same time. Some symptoms will be more severe in one person than in another. In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, the person might display some irritability, depression, or anxiety. They might become fearful, confused, or more dependent on a certain family member.1-4

As the disease progresses, behavior and personality changes become more obvious. These symptoms can include:1-4

  • Physical or verbal outbursts
  • Restlessness
  • Wandering
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Emotional distress
  • Paranoia
  • Social withdrawal

The person with Alzheimer's might be socially inappropriate. They might swear more than they did before they got sick. Or act out sexually in a way that is alarming. Even when the cause is clear, these extreme behaviors can be hard to witness.1,2,4

If caregivers notice any changes in behavior, make sure that the person with Alzheimer's isn't in pain. Check to see if they are hungry, thirsty, or need to go to the bathroom.1,3

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How to cope with behavioral changes

There are ways to cope when dealing with someone's Alzheimer's-related behavioral changes. Actions that can help this stressful situation include:1-6

  • Not taking their behavior personally
  • Avoiding arguing or confrontation
  • Creating a calming, familiar, and safe space for them
  • Following a daily routine
  • Simplifying language to limit confusion
  • Making sure they rest between activities
  • Finding outlets for their energy like walks or small chores

Ask for help when necessary. Maybe a family member or friend can provide relief for the primary caregiver. Taking care of someone with Alzheimer's disease can be frustrating. Feelings of anger can come up. These feelings might mean you are taking on too much. That is why it is vital to ask for support when overwhelmed.1-6

When to call the doctor

If the coping strategies for behavioral symptoms don't work, reach out to the doctor. If the symptoms are new behaviors from Alzheimer's disease, the doctor might suggest medicine if other interventions do not work.1,3,4,5

You should call the doctor right away if these changes come on suddenly. Maybe an infection or other illness is leading to their behavior. Or their medicine(s) could be causing the problem.1,3,4,5

The doctor can fully examine the person with Alzheimer’s to see whether there are medical reasons for changes in behavior. If there is a medical reason, the doctor may be able to treat it.1,3,4,5

Taking care of the caregiver

Caring for someone with Alzheimer's can be rewarding. But it is also challenging. Taking care of yourself is key. Some self-care tips include:2,5,6

  • Eating healthy food
  • Spending time with friends
  • Keeping up an exercise routine
  • Meditation
  • Taking breaks throughout the day
  • Practicing a favorite hobby

Think about seeking help from a licensed therapist. Your loved one's doctor may also be able to provide caregiver resources like a local support group. Talking with people dealing with similar issues can be a comfort. Caregiving is hard, but you don't have to go through this journey alone.2,5,6

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