How Alzheimer's Caregivers Can Cope With Dementia Mood Swings

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Senior African American man looking concerned while senior African American woman comfort hims

Mood swings are a distressing symptom of Alzheimer’s disease that may appear even in the relatively early stages of the illness. An Alzheimer’s patient can be completely calm one minute and suddenly begin to cry or fly into a rage for no apparent reason. It could be that the physical changes in the brain are causing sudden shifts in mood, or the person might be reacting to the stress of trying to understand an increasingly confusing and frightening world. These mood swings can be upsetting and hard to manage. If you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, consider these tips to help you handle these moments.

Check for physical comfort and needs.

If Alzheimer’s patients are uncomfortable, they may not express it, but it may trigger a mood swing.

  • Make sure the person is not too hot or cold and adjust the room temperature or clothing as needed.
  • People with Alzheimer’s can lose track of when they eat and drink, so check in to see if your loved one is hungry or thirsty. Try offering a snack or beverage and keep a record of meals and how much is consumed.
  • Sleep disturbances are another common Alzheimer’s symptom that can affect mood, so suggest a rest or nap.
  • Keep track of trips to the bathroom in case the person may need to go; he or she might not mention or realize it. 
  • Try to assess if there is pain or physical discomfort that needs to be addressed by medication or other treatment.

Create a calm environment.

When someone has Alzheimer’s, a loud room or even background noise can be agitating—even a TV might be too much. Glaring light and an open space may make the patient feel unsafe or insecure. Try to create a peaceful setting, which may help lessen mood swings caused by overstimulation. You can put on calming music or use a sound machine to build a restful mood, and make sure the lighting is pleasant and soft.

Redirect attention.

If the person becomes irritable or anxious, see if you can change the subject by bringing up happy memories, playing a favorite home video or song, or asking about something that you know the person is fond of. Or, change the topic to an upcoming appointment or task. Redirection can be very helpful in ending an outburst, so have ideas and tools ready in case you need them.

Be understanding rather than confrontational.

You may have to call upon deep reserves of patience when caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. The illness can make people angry and argumentative. If your grandmother seems irritated, don’t take it personally–it’s the disease talking. Instead, acknowledge her frustration and don’t try to correct her if she has facts wrong. For example, if she’s upset about a relative not coming to visit but the relative died some years ago, simply acknowledge that you know how much she cares for that person. The goal is to support and recognize her reality and emotions, no matter how out of place they may seem.

Take breaks and get support.

Alzheimer’s can be extremely difficult for both the patient and caregiver. You need to take care of yourself too, which will also help you provide better care for the patient. Your well-being must be a priority. Alzheimer’s care is a marathon, not a sprint. Make sure you get out, see friends, and find time for enjoyable activities. Ask for help when you need it. You can find support groups through local services or the Alzheimer’s Association website.

These tips can help you manage trying moments with someone who has the disease. However, if the mood swings are excessive or seem potentially dangerous, talk to your healthcare provider about medications that can help control them. These may include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and anti-psychotics, which can make both your life and the patient’s life calmer and more manageable.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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