I want to better understand my loved one’s agitation but don’t know how

We must make an effort to try to determine what a person with dementia is trying to communicate when he or she displays agitation or other “symptoms.”

Many professionals who work with dementia patients think that there is a cause of reason to every behavior. “If we spent as much time trying to understand behavior as we spend trying to manage and control it we might discover what lies behind it is a genuine attempt to communicate,” is how Malcolm Goldsmith of the UK Journal of Dementia Care put it.

People with dementia must continue to be viewed as individuals — as people who continue to need to be heard and have feelings. Whoever we are, often we find the source of anger or agitation stems simply from not being heard. Everyone needs to have his or her feelings validated and/or understood.

Insensitive or uncaring responses can alienate or agitate anyone. If, for example, a trusted friend is told about a sensitive issue that made you cry and responds with, “Why should that make you cry?” you will not feel as if you’re being truly heard. Your feelings certainly won’t feel validated. A better response from your friend would be something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset. Would you like to talk more about the situation?” Even though your friend’s feelings might differ from yours  — you might not become upset about the same things — she can still validate you.

Take another example of validation, using an upset child. The child might tell his parents that he is being picked on at school. If the parents shrug it off or treats the subject too lightly, the child won’t feel as if he’s been heard, understood or validated. However, if a parent responds with, “That really upsets me, too” and asks to talk the problem out so “we” can make things feel better, the child’s feelings will be validated.

The end result is the child will feel better about himself. This is critical. A parent might not view the situation at school with the same alarm or concern as the child, but that doesn’t change the importance to the child. It’s very important to remember that, in order to determine if the issue needs to be address, we must LISTEN.

This is no less true with a person with dementia. He or she needs to be heard and genuinely validated, just like anyone else. His or her experience might not seem like such a big deal to us, but it might be to him or her. That is a critical aspect to remember.

Many every day tasks can become difficult or overwhelming to people with dementia. They can start to feel unsure, inadequate, and even fearful as anxiety builds. Such people need to feel supported and the love that any of us need to get through difficult days.

Be generous with lines such as: “You did a good job,” “Thank you for your help!” “You are a wonderful person” “You are in a safe place,” and “I love you.” Affirming statements such as these can boost self-esteem and give a person validation. What you say to them might quickly be forgotten, but the good feeling may last.

Validate feelings, affirm often and genuinely listen.