Embarrassing and odd behaviour
Changes in behaviour
One day we were in a supermarket and my father went up to a woman, pointed to a pot of honey she was holding in her hand and said, “Hum, that’s honey. It’s good!” I was embarrassed about the uninhibited way he had approached this woman, whom I did not know. The woman replied, “Yes, it’s honey and it’s gentle like you”. At that moment I realised that social norms weren’t important, that what counted was sensitivity and that I could go anywhere with my father.
The person with dementia may occasionally behave in a way which seems to be totally inappropriate, or they may do something which others find strange. Sometimes such behaviour is merely unusual; sometimes it is disturbing or embarrassing for other people. This behaviour can be due to the fact that the part of the brain which controls inhibitions has been damaged, with the consequence that behaviour is no longer governed by social conventions. Alternatively, the person may be confused, disoriented or unsuccessfully trying to communicate something. Embarrassing or odd behaviour tends to be more of a problem for carers than it is for people with dementia themselves. Coping therefore involves dealing with your own emotions, trying to prevent the person with dementia from offending or shocking people, trying to understand the behaviour and trying to prevent it from reoccurring. It is not always possible to prevent embarrassing or odd behaviour, but many people will not be offended if they understand that the behaviour is due to the disease.
How to prevent embarrassing or odd behaviour
Look for a pattern which might indicate what caused the behaviour
Try to remember previous occasions when the person with dementia behaved in an apparently strange manner. You might find that it was in particular circumstances, when particular people were there or at a particular time of the day. By doing this, you might detect a pattern to and in some cases an explanation for the behaviour. For example, if you find that strange behaviour is often followed by incontinence, the behaviour might be the person’s way to communicate to you that they need to go to the toilet. Alternatively, if they rush off to get a particular possession whenever you have visitors and cling on to it tightly all the time they are there, it might be because they are afraid that someone will steal it. Communication difficulties and memory loss can make otherwise normal reactions seem strange. Understanding that there is perhaps a reason for strange behaviour may help you to feel less embarrassed and help you stop it as soon as it occurs or prevent it from occurring in the first place.
How to cope with embarrassing or odd behaviour
Remain calm and try not to overreact
Although you may find behaviour disturbing or odd, the person with dementia might not necessarily be concerned about it. The person may, however, be surprised and disturbed by your reaction to their behaviour and this could lead to an over-reaction or aggressive behaviour (please see the chapters on aggressive behaviour and over-reaction). This is why it is important that you try to remain calm and not to over-react.
Try to calmly take the person away from a public place or create a distraction
Sometimes the behaviour is particularly embarrassing because of where it occurs or because you are in the company of other people. You may feel embarrassed or afraid that the behaviour will shock others. In this case, taking the person away from the place or situation may be sufficient to resolve the problem. Be careful though that your action is not interpreted as restraint. If the person does not realise that the behaviour is odd or does not understand what you are trying to say, they may object to being led away or interrupted. You could try to distract them. For example, you could suggest doing something that you know the person likes, offer to take them somewhere, do something together or have something to drink.
Think about whether it is really necessary to try to stop the behaviour
Even if the behaviour is embarrassing or odd, it might not be necessary to try to stop it. Part of the embarrassment might be that other people don’t understand why the person with dementia is behaving in such a way. Explaining the situation to them beforehand may make everyone a little less uneasy if and when it does occur.
Discuss your feelings of embarrassment with others who have had similar experiences
You may find that it helps to discuss your embarrassment with other people who have had a similar experience and who consequently know how you feel. By discussing your feelings, you might find that the embarrassment gradually lessens. You might even be able to see the funny side.
Last Updated: Monday 10 August 2009