What Are Non-Drug Treatment Options for Alzheimer's?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2022. | Last updated: February 2024

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, more and more brain cells are destroyed. This can cause an array of behavioral symptoms that gradually worsen as the disease advances. Although the destruction of brain cells is the main catalyst for behavioral changes, other things can also be factors, including medication, environmental changes, emotions like stress or confusion, and other medical conditions like infection or hearing loss.1,2 Personality and behavior changes may be some of the hardest aspects to deal with in a loved one’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease, but there are some things that can be done to help manage these symptoms.

Some common personality and behavior changes in someone with Alzheimer’s disease include2:

  • Depressive symptoms/loss of interest in things
  • Hallucinations
  • Pacing
  • Aggression or hitting people
  • Paranoia, hiding things or thinking people are hiding their belongings
  • Getting upset more easily
  • Diminished personal hygiene

There are several things someone with Alzheimer’s, along with their caregiver, can do to help manage or address personality changes and behavioral symptoms without resorting to medication. While medication may be warranted in some cases or if nothing helps to alleviate behavior changes, drugs are not typically the first-line treatment.

Identifying triggers

Sometimes there are some easy fixes or uncomplicated reasons behind behavior changes in a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Triggers like excess noise in their environment, too many people surrounding them, or changes in routine or environment are all things that might cause behavior symptoms. Sometimes behavioral symptoms emerge at the end of the day, termed “sundowning.” Once a trigger is identified, these are fairly easy to address and can be done without medications.

Medical evaluation

Sometimes personality or behavior changes arise from a medical issue. If caregivers can’t figure out the cause behind a sudden or abrupt personality or behavior change and nothing they do is helping, call the doctor. The doctor might want to do an exam or run some tests to see if there is something larger going on that may be causing these changes, like an infection, a reaction to a medication, or an illness.2

Being there for them

Don’t underestimate the importance of simply being there for the person who's experiencing these symptoms, and providing support and comfort. Reassure them that they are safe and that you will help them if they would like or need help. Keep things simple, and don’t argue with the person.2 Pay attention to how they feel, rather than what they say. It might be frustrating, but try not to let frustration or anger show, as people can often pick up on this. Try to maintain a sense of humor and keep things light, and use distraction if possible. All of these things will help to diffuse a difficult or upsetting situation and can help calm someone who may be agitated or upset. The caregiver should also take care of themselves so that they can remain relaxed and maintain a sense of humor.

Importance of routine

Maintaining a daily routine helps cut down on the unexpected and helps provide a sense of control. The person knows what happens and when, and can be ready for the scheduled activities. It can also help provide a sense of security.

If caregivers notice any personality or behavior changes or symptoms, this is not uncommon in people with Alzheimer’s disease. It can be caused by a variety of things, and non-drug approaches should be tried first, in terms of treatment. If nothing is helping and these behavior changes have occurred suddenly with no apparent cause, call the doctor. They might want to examine the person to make sure there’s nothing medical that is causing these changes.

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