by Dr. Rebecca Logsdon
Q. My father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Right now, he is only having memory problems, but my uncle's neighbor had Alzheimer's and got really violent. My mother and I are terrified about what we will do if my father gets aggressive or violent. He's always been such a gentle person, I just don't know how we will be able to handle it if he becomes like my uncle's neighbor.
A. It is a common misconception that all Alzheimer's disease patients become violent, perhaps because violence can be such a frightening problem when it does occur. Actually our research with hundreds of patients at the UW Geriatric and Family Services Clinic and Alzheimer's Disease Research Center shows that the most predictable thing about behavior problems and AD is that every individual is unique. True violence only occurs in a small fraction of the patients we have seen (less than 10 percent). Agitation, including restlessness, arguing, and pacing, occurs in up to half the patients at some time during the disease process, but usually it is mild and occurs infrequently. With those patients for whom agitation becomes more of a problem, we have developed a variety of different treatments, including environmental or behavioral changes that decrease the frequency and severity of the problems and medications that can help in extreme cases.
In your father's case, we have no way of knowing for sure whether he will become agitated or aggressive, but if he has always been a gentle, easy going person, the chances are good that he will remain so. If he does begin to seem anxious or fearful, or if he starts getting more irritable than usual, I would encourage you to get counseling early on about how to help him and your mother. The Geriatric and Family Services Clinic can provide assistance, as can the Alzheimer's Association or other specialists who work with individuals with AD. It may not always be easy to care for your father, but if you start now and develop a support network, you will be several steps ahead when the time comes that you need more help.
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