If you’re caring for a loved one who is living with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, you may notice that they exhibit certain behaviors that can be particularly challenging for you as well as distressing for them. How can you best respond when your loved one becomes agitated, refuses personal care or begins to wander?

As much as possible, it’s important to look at these situations from the perspective of the person with dementia. In doing so, we find that these behaviors typically represent the desire for communication. What is the person communicating through their behaviors? Which needs are they trying to meet?

If a person with dementia becomes agitated, for example, it could be that they are feeling unheard, misunderstood, threatened or frightened. Individuals with dementia will often pick up on our nonverbal communication, so one of the best approaches you can take in this situation is be sure that you’re communicating in a calm, caring tone of voice with open, non-threatening body language.

When a person refuses personal care, they may feel like they’re being violated in some way. Or, it could relate to old, lifelong routines. A person who has always bathed in the evening may not be as receptive to showering in the morning, for example. We want to be sure we’re providing care in a way that accommodates personal preferences and emphasizes dignity and respect. Instead of having a set time to shower, you might try offering multiple opportunities to shower.

If a person is wandering, it could be that they are leaving an area that creates discomfort or that they’re looking for something personally meaningful. They could also be exhibiting a lifelong work schedule. Imagine looking at the clock and suddenly realizing, “It’s 8:15. I need to get out of here and go to work!” In this case, knowing the person’s unique life history can provide valuable insights on their reasons for wandering. You may also find it helpful to keep track of patterns that can lead to wandering or other behaviors.

In caring for a loved one with dementia, all action has meaning. By validating  and addressing the person’s underlying needs, we’re better able to help resolve these types of behaviors for those in our care.

Mike Direen is the Community Liaison for Adult Care Services, a non-profit organization that includes The Margaret T. Morris Center memory care community in Prescott and The Susan J. Rheem Adult Day Center in Prescott Valley. For more information, please email Mike at mdireen@AdultCareServices.org.