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Managing Emotional Outbursts in the Elderly

When we think of "temper tantrums," we often associate them with young or teenage children. However, as the population ages and dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer's are on the rise, temper outbursts in the elderly are becoming increasingly common.

It can be challenging to see your elderly parent act in a way that is very different from what you're used to throughout your life. It can be unnerving and leave you feeling unsettled and anxious.

Emotional outbursts can occur at any stage in life and are a natural response when faced with memory loss that leads to confusion, fear, frustration, and sadness. However, there are ways to handle your response to the situation, starting with understanding the causes of the outburst itself.

The Whys

Witnessing a parent exhibit aggressive or violent behaviour can be shocking and bewildering. However, understanding the reason behind this behaviour can provide some clarity. Emotional outbursts are often a result of personality changes due to Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Prescription medications may also have adverse side effects or interact with each other, leading to mood swings and irritability.

Anxiety or depression caused by deteriorating health can also result in emotional fits. And though it may be difficult to accept, seniors may misbehave simply because they are being stubborn.

When a senior's behaviour suddenly changes, it can be a cause for concern. The symptoms could be due to an adverse reaction to medication or an underlying medical issue, such as a urinary tract infection, unmanaged pain, or poor sleep. UTIs can cause strange behavioural symptoms in seniors, so it's crucial to contact their doctor right away if they are acting uncharacteristically angry or upset.

It's important to remember that the individual may not have full control over their words or actions, making it crucial not to take their behaviour personally. It's not uncommon for elderly individuals to have emotional outbursts towards those closest to them, such as family members.

Tips for Handling Emotional Outbursts

The following tips have been adapted from a variety of online sources, however, seeking advice and support from medical practitioners or support groups is also a great primary source for assistance.

  1. Schedule an appointment with your loved one’s doctor to confirm that their behaviour change is not being caused by any new or worsening physical or mental health problems.

  2. The next time your elder has an emotional outburst, do not engage. Make it clear to them by calmly saying that you will not listen to their outburst then walk away. Leave the room and give them plenty of time to cool down before you interact again.

  3. During an outburst, they may accuse you of "not loving them" and may say those words. If your loved one tells you that you don’t love them, gently take their hand once they are calm and tell them, “I do love you." It is best to leave it at that and not engage in further conversation, as that can lead to more hostile actions or words. Do not feel like you have to justify your actions.

  4. Remind yourself that you need and deserve a break, and then make it happen. Self-care is beneficial to prevent caregiver burnout. Doing something small for yourself each day will set the standard. Schedule time for respite just like you schedule all other appointments. This routine will help your loved one become more accepting of your personal boundaries. Consistency is key. Consider hiring a home care provider such as those we offer to provide you with peace of mind that your loved one is being looked after during those times when you cannot,

  5. Understand that feelings of guilt will occur, especially when taking time for yourself or thinking that you are not doing enough to prevent the outbursts. Putting the needs of others before your own can lead to more damaging personal health and wellness. The key to successful, sustainable caregiving is prioritizing self-care and letting go of undeserved guilt.

  6. Dementia caregivers use validation and redirection to get through tough times. What this means is that, once the behaviour begins (typically in verbal outbursts or demands), acknowledge their request and validate their feelings. After that, you gently guide their attention to another object, activity, or topic. Patience is necessary as redirection takes trial and error, especially when considering the changing needs and interests of the individual.

Remember, caregiving is hard yet rewarding. Nurturing our elderly loved ones through all of the ups and downs can be challenging; however, knowing that the downs are through no fault of our own and not to be taken personally will allow you to fully be present for all of the ups along the way.


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