Agitation can be one of the most troubling symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. You’ve probably tried everything you could think of to bring calm to your loved one.
Keep in mind the behavior is part of the disease and a form of communication and often is triggered by relatively minor events, says Sam Fazio, PhD, senior director of quality care and psychosocial research at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“The person may be uncomfortable, confused, bored, anxious, or have some basic need like being hungry, thirsty, or having to use the bathroom. As it becomes more difficult for the person living with dementia to communicate their thoughts and feelings, they may act out in unexpected ways,” he says.
It might be time to think outside the box to ease the tension.
Creativity Helps With Alzheimer’s Agitation
Alzheimer’s disease robs people of their thinking, memory, and communication skills. But often creativity, imagination, and emotions are strong into the middle and even late stages of the disease.
“Using art, music, or another favorite activity to stay connected to someone living with dementia can have several potential benefits,” Fazio says. They can:
- Help with anxiety, agitation, aggression, and overall mood
- Keep the person’s brain engaged
- Engage them socially
- Lessen isolation
Strike the Right Chord
Tina Baxter, a nurse practitioner in Anderson, IN, works with Alzheimer’s patients in hospitals, assisted living facilities, and other settings. She knows the power of music firsthand – through the experiences of those she cares for and her own father.
Baxter’s dad had memory loss and dementia at the end of his life. He struggled to get out of bed and walk, and his appetite was low.
One night, the family went to a dinner theater production of The Sound of Music, a musical set in Europe around World War II. Baxter’s father served in the military and was stationed in Germany. “You could see the synapses firing,” Baxter says. “The music was going; he was so engaged with it. He loved it completely, and his appetite was humongous!”
“It’s almost like a switch was flipped.” He reminisced about living in Germany, meeting the people, and learning the language. “The performance triggered those memories for him. He was animated and kind of like his old self again.”
The Science Behind the Music
Music therapy can’t reverse the loss of brain function. But it can make the most out of what is left, according to the American Music Therapy Association.
Music is processed throughout the entire brain, so areas not yet touched by Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can “understand” it. It also wakes up special pathways within the diseased brain that otherwise would be “asleep” and lose function.
Whether you listen to music, make it, or move to it, music can decrease agitation and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Baxter recalled a male dementia patient who was agitated and would not sit still for a physical exam. “So I started to dance with him!” she says. “We danced down the hall, and I was able to listen to his heart and lungs. He loved it!”
Paint a New Picture
Art can be particularly helpful if someone loses the ability to express themselves with words. Why? Language is a left-sided brain activity. As it fades, right-sided visual creativity can come out unexpectedly stronger.
“I’ve found that even the most restless and irritable patients can find some peace and stillness when handed a paintbrush,” says Liban Saleh, PhD, founder and CEO of CareCompare, a home health care service that operates in the United Kingdom.
“In one instance, I saw a man, who was noticeably struggling, be transported to a calmer state by the act of painting,” he says. “No matter how far developed his condition was, this was something he knew how to do.”
He also found a positive impact on his own grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Creative outlets helped his spatial awareness, brain function, and gave him a sense of satisfaction.
“Activities from collage-making, painting, or simpler things like music-making apps can create a renewed sense of purpose and connection in those with Alzheimer’s,” Saleh says.
Tips to Use Creativity at Home
If your loved one is a music fan, give these things a try:
Find songs in the key of their life: Sometimes, playing songs from their youth can unearth long-term happy memories. Ask them or their friends what they enjoyed in their teens or 20s.
Hit the right notes: See if they are enjoying music. Encourage them to clap or dance to the beat. On the other hand, if they seem agitated, find some new selections.
Use sounds that soothe: Choose some music that seems to soothe them. Play those songs when your loved one is anxious or agitated. It may distract them enough to calm them down.
To foster their artistic streak:
Give them the tools: Provide nontoxic paints and other supplies. Hand them the paintbrush, clay for sculpting, etc., and show them what to do.
Praise the process, not the project: Your loved one’s final project might not look like a masterpiece. It’s the act of art-making that’s most important. Pay a compliment. Say something like, “I love all the colors you used!”
Make it a conversation starter: Talk about the picture they’re painting, for instance. Ask why it’s a dog, cake, or whatever. You might find out they had a pet as a child that they loved, which can spark a conversation. Or, they remember the delicious cake at their wedding. Ask what else they remember about the day. Was there a band? What song did they choose as their “first dance”?
Keys to Creative Success
Help your loved one find something that interests them.
Did they spend long summer days in their garden? A recent study shows horticulture therapy is particularly good at improving agitation.
“You just have to meet people where they are,” Baxter says. She recalls one Alzheimer’s patient who was struggling to find something to do. Baxter found out the woman once worked in an accountant’s office, which she had enjoyed.
“Every day, we handed her a pad, pencil, and calculator, and she’d write down numbers and add them up all day long.”
Music and Memories
Baxter remembers her father’s last days fondly. He was in hospice, and music brought him a sense of calm and happiness. “The night he died, a volunteer from our church was there. She was singing to him, and she said he had the most peaceful smile on his face.”