Relationship between Foul Language and Dementia

Coping With Profanity When Your Loved One Has Dementia

Sometimes, Foul Language Occurs in Dementia
How can you cope when your loved one with dementia uses profanity?. Steven Puetzer/ Getty Images

If your loved one has Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, you may be wondering how to cope with swearing and other bad or foul language; words that can be shocking when they come from the mouth of a family member or friend who has never spoken like that. Let's take a look at why some people with dementia swear, the possible triggers for foul language, and what you can do to cope.

Dementia and Foul Language

Many people with Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia follow a similar path as the disease progresses, yet not everyone exhibits the same symptoms.

Cognitive changes such as memory loss are a hallmark of dementia, but challenging behaviors such as foul language can also develop.

Foul language may stream out of the person's mouth at times, even if they've never uttered a swear word before in their life. Understandably, this can be hurtful and embarrassing to this person's family or friends. Why does this occur? And, what's the best way to react when your loved one is turning the air blue with his language?

Why Do Some People with Dementia Swear?

Dementia is a condition that affects the brain, and the brain controls language. That's why people with dementia sometimes have difficulty finding the right words, or as the disease progresses into the later stages, they may not be able to speak at all.

Another effect of dementia can be the loss of a filter on which words are spoken. Words that otherwise would be caught before they were spoken now may be uttered freely due to the loss of inhibitions and personality changes that sometimes develop as dementia progresses.

A person who would never want to hurt others before developing dementia might call someone hurtful, offensive names now.

Dementia also can trigger frustration about the many cognitive losses and the need for dependence on others for help, and  that frustration can all come flowing out—sometimes through swearing and name-calling.

Coping with Swearing and Other Bad Language

From recognizing triggers, to considering your reaction, there are many things that may help you cope with your loved ones bad language and outbursts. Not all of these will work with all people at all times, and you may find a particular approach—such as redirecting and distracting—works better than another. Most important, however, is to recognize that you do have options, including taking a break if you need (if your loved one is safe and can be left alone.)

Recognize the Triggers

If there is a pattern as to what seems to bring on the swearing—but often there is not—avoiding that circumstance or "trigger" may sometimes be possible.

Possible environmental (external) triggers may include:

  • A change in routine
  • Overstimulating surroundings
  • An unfamiliar space
  • A lack of personal space
  • A confrontation with a loved one or even a stranger
  • Feeling patronized

With these triggers, all of us may feel anxiety or frustration, but combined with the cognitive changes and loss of inhibition of dementia, the reaction may be magnified. It may help for you to consider the circumstances your loved one is facing which would leave you feeling apprehensive or frustrated.

Psychological (cognitive) triggers may also lead to foul language.

Some of these potential triggers may include:

  • Delusions
  • Paranoia

Choose your Reaction

Let's assume there's not a clear cause or trigger for the profanity but that it instead appears random and unprovoked. If this is the case, and while you may not be able to prevent it, you can choose not to react and become upset by it. It may be hard to hear a loved one speak like this, but remember that your family member or friend isn't "choosing" to act this way. Your calmness may, at times, facilitate a calmness in your loved one.

Draw the Line

You may try speaking in a firm and calm tone of voice and telling your loved one that he may not speak like that or use those words.

Sometimes this can work, especially if he is in the earlier stages of dementia. Other times it may be completely ineffective and the foul language may appear to be almost involuntary.

Roll with It

If you can, let the words roll off your back. You'll preserve your energy and joy in life if you're able to just go with the flow rather than take it to heart. It may take some practice doing this before the words lose their impact on your peace of mind.

Take a Break

If your loved one is in a place where he is safe and can be left alone, give yourself a ten-minute time out if you're feeling upset. During those ten minutes, remind yourself that he doesn't have the ability to control his language. It can be helpful to view it as the disease talking, rather than your loved one. In fact, you may wish to consciously work at separating out the behaviors from the person who is engaging in those behaviors.

Redirect and Distract

Simply changing the conversation or scenery may be enough to stop your loved one with dementia from swearing. Try turning on his favorite baseball team or religious program on the television. Or play a music recording. Physical activities such as taking a walk may serve a double purpose in both distracting your loved one, and giving him an outlet for the adrenaline surge associated with angry outbursts.

Explain His Behavior to Others Around Him

It can be difficult enough if your loved one swears when you are alone or with family and friends who are familiar with his dementia. But being out in public can be downright embarrassing. The Alzheimer's Association has a great suggestion: Carry business-size cards with you with the following words printed on them: "Thank you for your patience. My companion has Alzheimer's disease."

This is a wonderful way to communicate with others around you who may be hearing your loved one use colorful language and not know what to say or how to respond. This simple explanation can allow you to quickly prevent people from taking offense.

When You are the Recipient of the Foul Language

Even when you understand the reasons, foul language from a person with dementia can sometimes pierce like an arrow. It's painful to hear someone say something about you that isn't true—but at the same time we know that arguing with someone with Alzheimer's often backfires. How can you cope when these comments are aimed at your character or integrity? What if your loved one swears and states that you never visit him even if you visit him more than anyone else?

Remember that your loved one's reality is not your reality. To reduce the impact of these comments, you may wish to compare them with other erroneous comments your loved one makes; it's not just comments about you that are false. Here are some more tips on what to say when your grandma or grandpa with dementia is not nice.

Bottom Line on Dementia and Profanity

Swearing isn't uncommon among people with dementia, even those who never uttered a 4-letter word in their life. The personality changes and loss of inhibitions as the condition progresses may give rise to many challenging behaviors, even for those who were most outspoken against profanity before dementia hit.

As a family member or friend this can be totally distressing. You may find it hurtful and disruptive, and especially embarrassing in public. Sometimes you may be able to recognize the triggers behind these episodes so you can do things to lessen the risk, but that's not always the case. It can be helpful to take time to choose your reaction—knowing when you should just go with the flow, when to draw the line, and when you simply need to walk away (if it's safe to do so.) Think ahead about a quick comment you can make in public, or have cards printed as suggested by the Alzheimer's Association to explain what is happening. This may not only reduce your embarrassment but also the chance that strangers will react in ways which only compound the problem.

Sources:

Ringman, J., Kwon, E., Flores, D., Rotko, C., Mendez, M., and P. Lu. The Use of Profanity During Letter Fluency Tasks in Frontotemporal Dementia and Alzheimer Disease. Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology. 2010. 23(3):159-64.

Ropper. Adams and Victor's Principles of Neurology, 10e. N.p.: McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.

Sawyer, R., Rodriquez-Porcel, F., Hagen, M., Shatz, R., and A. Espay. Diagnosing the Frontal Variant of Alzheimer’s Disease: A Clinician’s Yellow Brick Road. Journal of Clinical Movement Disorders. 2017. 3:2.

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