Using Distraction as a Response to Challenging Behaviors in Dementia

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Picture this: your loved one with dementia is bound and determined to leave to go to work at the job he no longer has. He's got his shoes on and he's headed out the door, worried he's going to be late. He's fumbling with the lock on the house door and with anxiety on his face, he demands that you help him get out.

Do you patiently explain to him yet again that he doesn't have a job anymore? Do you remind him again that he isn't able to drive?

If this works and calms him down, you've experienced success. There may be times when this bluntness is needed and effective.

However- more likely, this direct approach will cause your family member to become frustrated, angry, upset, sad or more determined to leave. Because he doesn't recall that he has dementia and doesn't have a job to go to, telling him otherwise might not make any sense to him.

The Art of Distraction

Here's where distraction may be useful. Rather than blocking the doorway and telling him that he doesn't have a job, try a different approach. Engage him in other meaningful activities proactively, and consider what might take his mind off getting out the door. The key to distraction is identifying a different activity to substitute for the behavior you need to change.

  • If attempting to go to work is a common occurrence after getting up in the morning, arrange for a friend or family member to come over to visit at that time.
  • Change up his routine so that "leaving for work" isn't the expected next thing for him. If he always left right after breakfast, try delaying breakfast until later or changing the food you typically give him for breakfast.
  • Distract him with a favorite baseball game that you DVR'ed the night before.
  • Is he restless? Ask him to go for a walk with you. But do take your cell phone with in case he decides not to return with you.
  • Ask him if he can help you fix the clothes dryer before he goes.
  • Talk with him about his granddaughter who is coming over to visit.
  • Does he love music? Ask him to sing a couple of songs with you.
  • Is faith important to him? Engage him in a meaningful spiritual activity.

While distraction won't work every time, it's an important tool to have as an option. And if it works, you may have saved both yourself and him from frustration, "new" grief over the loss of his job, and even agitation and combative behavior.

Other Resources:

Bright Focus Foundation. January 2015. The Challenging Behaviors of Alzheimer's Disease; Other Treatment Options.

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