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Is it Anger or Dementia?

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Sadly we all know what the later stages of dementia may look like, but most of us are less familiar with how dementia may affect people at the early stage of this condition. Memory changes are not the only signs of dementia. In older adults, anger and blaming may be behaviors associated with early stages of dementia.

Early Dementia Signs - – not what you might expect

  • Why is he always angry at me and nice to everyone else?

  • I do everything for him. My sister isn’t around at all, but he says he wishes she was here because I make his life miserable.

  • She blames me for stealing her phone when she can’t find it

I have spoken to friends with elderly parents who described one of these situations. As I asked questions and they described the situation, it became clear to me that their parent may be in the early stages of dementia which could explain their behavior. A spouse may also notice these changes.

In the early stages of dementia a person can function. They have both spatial and time awareness, so they know where they are, they know who you are, and they know the date and time. Most can read and be aware of current events, but they may not be happy with their life situation. They may be experiencing changes that are scary and they prefer to imagine that it’s not them, but rather another cause.

It is a normal reaction for people to blame someone else when they can’t explain or accept that something is wrong with them. This may be why an older person may be angry and/or blame a child, spouse or friend.

Blaming to Hide Reality

When someone is unable to accept the changes they are experiencing, such as memory loss and confusion, they may try to explain these changes by blaming those around them.

If someone misplaces a personal item, they may blame their child or spouse. They may blame a cleaner for moving their things from the drawer or may even accuse them of stealing.

If a group of friends are playing cards, and the person with dementia is not playing well, he or she may blame a friend for cheating.

Physical changes may cause a person with dementia to blame someone or something else too. If a person can’t hear well, they may accuse someone else of not speaking clearly, rather than admit they aren’t hearing well. If a person is incontinent, they may say the reason their bed is wet is because of a leak in the ceiling.

When we understand that the reason behind these behaviors is dementia, we can be more understanding and helpful, rather than feel hurt and return the anger. Learning to use validation can help us communicate with a person with dementia.

Good at Covering Up

In the early stages of dementia people can be very good at covering up their memory loss or other changes they are experiencing which may make it difficult for family and friends to understand that they have dementia. This is because these people still have enough mental resources (mental processing power) to accomplish this.

When I need to say or write something in Hebrew, which is not my native language, and I’m not sure of the pronunciation of the word I want to use or I don’t know the word in Hebrew, I can choose a different word instead or simply change the structure of the sentence. No one would know that this is not the actual word that I had wanted to use. This is because I have the mental resources to find a different way to express myself.

In the early stage of dementia a person can try to hide memory issues in the same way. This is, however, unfortunate that the person hides their memory issues. If they would be open about the changes they are experiencing and get tested, friends, family and co-workers would be able to adjust themselves to make life easier for a person with dementia.

Even in later stages of dementia I am often amazed at how well a person attempts to cover up their memory loss. When I organize memory games at the senior center, and someone doesn’t know the answer they find creative ways to get out of answering. Often, we go over and remember the names of different types of foods. After our discussion, I may ask what their favorite food is. If someone can’t answer the question, they may say “I’m not hungry” and laugh.

When a person is very good at covering up their memory loss and confusion, family members may not suspect that their loved one has dementia.

When Frustration Becomes Anger

Have you ever had days when you lashed out at a family member or friend for apparently no real reason? My poor husband has had to endure this from me. Not long ago it happened when I had bottled up weeks of frustration without realizing it. It did not take much to press my button and cause me to get angry. It had absolutely nothing to do with my husband, but the weeks of frustration came out as anger at him.

Not knowing what is happening to one's self and feeling out of control is terrifying. Many people express their frustration and their fear as anger.

I often see posts from people, who are dealing with an older parent, describe their difficulty of having an angry parent and how it is affecting their life. I also see that they get advice to not allow their parent to hurt them and to spend less time with them or even to stop communication with them all together.

I understand the idea of cutting out toxic people from our lives, but it is also important to try to understand the behavior. It may be that this parent has dementia and is in need of understanding rather than dismissing them as toxic.

When we can understand the reason behind the anger and the blaming, we can be more empathetic rather than take it personally, feel hurt and return the anger.


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