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Dementia Behaviors: What They Mean

Mental Health Posts on Staying Put at Home Blog

Shirley Magee* cares for her husband, Jim, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Though Jim is accustomed to taking the occasional nap, his wife noticed that he was sleeping more during the day. He also appeared lethargic. But apart from these slight issues, which can be normal for Alzheimer’s patients, Shirley didn’t see other changes. Jim wasn’t coughing. He wasn’t complaining of chest pain. He wasn’t even breathing hard. But Shirley soon found out that Jim’s excessive sleeping was due to an undiagnosed bout of pneumonia.

Shirley’s story is not uncommon. As many caregivers know, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can significantly diminish the communication efforts of those with it. Sufferers may initially forget words and phrases only to eventually lose most verbal faculties, making it difficult for them to tell loved ones or doctors that they feel unwell. So as the disease progresses, caregivers must watch for non-verbal signs that may indicate physical needs and health concerns.


As their oral abilities decline, individuals with dementia may become more anxious and aggressive. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, agitation often indicates frustration. In many cases, that frustration may stem from a growing lack of personal autonomy. However, distress can also point to physical problems. For instance, caffeine-induced stimulation or exhaustion can make a person act in an agitated manner.


Caregivers might also notice that loved ones increasingly want to roam for no apparent reason. What friends and family may not realize, though, is that wandering can be a sign of distress. Some dementia sufferers roam because they can’t locate the bathroom or verbalize their discomfort to a loved one. Others may wander because they want food or a drink but can’t express their hunger or thirst.


Dementia sufferers often sleep during daylight hours. However, friends and family members should note if a loved one suddenly sleeps more than usual. Such a change may indicate a physical health problem such as pneumonia, which requires professional medical attention. Checking the temperature of a dementia patient on a regular basis could also help to quickly identify a fever brought on by infection that a loved one may not be able to point out.

*The names in this story have been changed for privacy reasons.

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