Certain kinds of mental illness or dementia contribute to agitation, sometimes leading to a crisis point. A loved one locked into a cycle of disturbed behavior needs immediate intervention, but what kind of help can the concerned caregiver offer?
Even before my son, Michael, had been diagnosed as bipolar in his early twenties, I discovered helpful ways to calm down his stress. I used the same approach for my sister, Sharon, who succumbed to schizophrenia at age 27. When either loved one tended to perceive minor events as catastrophic, I learned to shift into caregiving mode with these tips I can share with you. In certain situations, a loved one may need to be hospitalized. This could require a 911 call.
1. Avoid confrontation. When Michael felt cornered by parental controls, he lashed out in violent ways. My husband and I learned to keep our cool during his outbursts.
2. Lower your voice. Speak firmly but soothingly and repeat a comforting phrase, “Don’t worry, Dear” or “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” When Sharon became strident about a person, place, or thing, I responded by keeping my voice modulated, which tended to lower her own.
3. The human touch works wonders if the agitated person allows you to reach out with a light pat on the shoulder, upper back, or arm. It may be advisable to wait until the disturbed person has settled down before attempting to touch them. After my late husband, Jim, was confined to a wheelchair, I patted his shoulders and upper arms as I took him outdoors for a stroll.
4. Walking with the person as they recite their issues and concerns. Arm in arm can work wonders for some disturbed persons. Sharon enjoyed this sisterly comfort after she stabilized.
5. Food can calm an agitated loved one who may become disoriented by hunger. Mike always felt more like himself after he ate a good meal.
6. Distraction. Although used less often, distraction can be a real winner for an agitated elder who suffers from dementia. Jim’s dementia followed two severe heart attacks and subsequent strokes, which rendered him depressed and confused. It was a joy to see him shift abruptly from gloom to alertness when I brought out photos of the children or grandchildren.
7. Special Interests. Know your loved one’s special interests and try to get your loved one to talk about them. Sharon was an omnivorous reader before her initial breakdown. I could sometimes remind her of those beloved classics, such as Jane Austen, that brought a smile to her face.
8. Medications. Once you have the loved one’s attention, ask them if they’ve been taking their medication regularly. This could be the source of their problematic behavior. I learned to encourage, but never force, my loved one to resume medications and therapy to assist them through a crisis.
9. Heal Thyself. A hidden gem for me as a caregiver was to pursue therapy to help resolve stress. Interaction with or managing a loved one’s mental disturbance, even from a phone call’s distance, can shake up the calmest person.