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Tips to Reduce Challenging Dementia Behavior during Hospital Stays

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Dementia and hospital stays are not a good combination.

Hospitals are noisy, confusing environments that are full of strange people, bright lights and reflective surfaces. On top of that, your loved one isn’t feeling well or is in pain and they’re being constantly touched, questioned and poked.

For someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, all of this can cause agitation, delirium, aggression, worsening of symptoms, and other challenging dementia behaviors. But there are ways to make the situation less disorienting for your older adult and reduce their fear and confusion. Here are 9 tips that should help make your older adult’s next trip to the hospital easier and less stressful for both of you.

  1. Bring a copy of important documents. In addition to your older adult’s health insurance information, bring all essential legal and medical documents. This might include a Power of Attorney, DNR, advance directive or living will, and any other documents necessary for your older adult’s situation.

  2. Bring a copy of their basic medical info. In the hospital, the staff will likely ask for your older adult’s basic information – height, weight, etc.; brief medical history – past surgeries, need for hearing aids, significant health conditions, etc.; and a current list of medications – including vitamins and supplements. Having this information already written down means that you’ll be able to answer questions quickly and accurately. It also saves you from trying to remember important information like when they had surgery, when they were diagnosed with a specific health condition, or how many milligrams of a specific medication they’re taking.

  3. Be proactive – tell staff that your loved one has dementia and how it affects their care. Many people working in hospitals don’t understand how dementia can affect behavior and communication. Typically, there is little to no training for the staff to teach them how to treat someone with dementia. Calmly tell anyone who interacts with your older adult that he/she has dementia and briefly name the top symptoms they need to be aware of. Make it clear that your requests aren’t just “nice to have,” but they will help avoid unnecessary and time-consuming conflicts brought on by dementia agitation. For example, you could say, “My spouse has dementia and that makes it very difficult for him to communicate. I can keep him from getting too anxious or upset by translating your questions so you can find out what you need to know. Getting worked up can cause him to fight, run away, or scream in fear. Please let me keep him calm and cooperative to make things easier for everyone.” Or, “My mother has dementia and she may become very agitated if you approach her quickly or speak loudly. She will be calm and cooperative if you could please move slowly and speak softly. I appreciate it and it will save everyone a lot of time and headache.” You may also want to ask if harsh lighting can be dimmed while you’re waiting or to be moved to a quieter area – all to help keep your older adult calm and cooperative.

  4. Bring another person to help you. You will need to provide information and answer questions, especially when you first arrive. If possible, ask a family member or friend to go with you or meet you in the emergency room. They can sit with your loved one to help them feel calm and secure while you focus on communicating important information to the hospital staff.

  5. Advocate for your loved one and provide accurate information. Someone with dementia often can’t or won’t accurately report symptoms or pain. They also may not remember what happened or why they need to be in the hospital. You’ll need to speak on their behalf so they get the correct treatment. Jot down a few notes so you can briefly describe the symptoms and events that caused the visit. Having notes to look at helps you keep things brief and makes sure you don’t forget an important piece of information. While you’re in the hospital, keep taking notes if you notice expressions of pain or changes in their symptoms so you can update doctors and nurses.

  6. Stick by your loved one’s side. As much as you can, stay close to your older adult. You’re the only familiar face in this confusing environment and having you near will help them stay calm and oriented. Staying close also means that you can keep an eye on your loved one’s symptoms and needs. You’ll know right away if they’re in pain, need a bedpan, need a drink of water, or if their symptoms change. That means you can accurately report their needs and your observations to hospital staff.

  7. Stay calm and positive to reduce challenging behavior. People with dementia often pick up on body language. Even though this is a tough and scary situation, do your best to stay calm and focus on the positive – it will help your loved one feel calm and safe, which minimizes challenging behavior.

  8. Help your older adult understand what’s happening. Being in an unfamiliar hospital environment can be disorienting and confusing to someone with dementia. They may ask why they’re there or ask to go home. To help reassure them, you could say something simple like, “We’re in the hospital because you fell down and got hurt.” Then, if possible, distract them with a pleasant activity.

  9. Ease a long wait with comforting activities. Often, going to the emergency room means waiting for hours if the situation isn’t immediately life-threatening. Depending on the situation, it may help to bring a simple, calming activity to give your older adult something positive to focus on and help them stay busy while they wait for treatment or tests. This could be a box of tissues to fold or fiddle with, a deck of cards to shuffle and arrange, a photo album to look at, or a fidget quilt. Others may be comforted by a therapeutic doll, stuffed animal, weighted lap blanket, or a sensory toy. And some older adults may enjoy listening to their favorite music or their favorite book read aloud.

FAVOR Home Care strives to make this process easier for all our clients and their families. Our handy Client Binders include much of the information requested in the emergency room, as well as notes about regular activities and how your loved one's actions, intake, etc., may have changed in the past few days. We also have patient, compassionate caregivers available to stay with your loved one in the hospital 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when life gets in the way.

If you or someone you love could benefit from our services, give FAVOR a call at 501-725-2273 or email us at

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