Carers of people with dementia

Relieving symptoms

Of the many symptoms arising in people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, the ones most commonly treated by medication are anxiety, restlessness and aggression. All these symptoms can be distressing and frightening for the person with dementia and for their carer.

Sometimes a carer will have read or been told that it should be possible to control symptoms without using drugs, but this may not take into consideration the desperation felt by carers unable to find a way of managing difficult behaviour. Many carers are sure that without some kind of medication it would be impossible for them to carry on and suggest, probably rightly, that the people who believe they should manage without medication have not experienced the day-in day-out stresses of caring for a person with dementia.

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Some of the medications used tend to have a sedative effect and the carer needs to balance the need to control the symptoms and the risk of turning someone into a 'zombie'. Many carers expressed a fear that, by sedating their loved one, they are losing their last chance of contact with the person they used to know.

Many carers discovered for themselves or through their medical advisor a system whereby they tailored the use of sedative medicines according to the immediate situation and the time of day.

In some cases, people in the early stages of dementia were thought to be suffering from depression and were given medication for this which sometimes made things worse. Antidepressants are however sometimes used for people with established dementia, as a co-existing depression is quite common. Antipsychotics drugs are a group of medications that are also occasionally prescribed for behavioural and psychological symptoms in dementia. Antipsychotic drugs carry an increased risk of the patient suffering a stroke, so are used very cautiously to help with behavioural and psychological symptoms in dementia. When antipsychotic medication is indicated, the doctor will weigh up the pros and cons of the prescription with the patient, carers and others concerned before making a decision. If antipsychotics are prescribed, the patient should be closely monitored and the medication stopped as soon as clinically indicated.  

Many carers mentioned music as a source of pleasure and as a calming influence. While it may not actually do away with the need to use medication it can bring relief both to the carer and to the person with dementia. Other forms of non- drug treatment such as reminiscence therapy, social interaction, aromatherapy, talking therapies, animal therapy, dance therapy and massage are also suggested by the Alzheimer’s Society and NICE as alternatives and should be used before medication is prescribed.

Last reviewed March 2015.

Last updated March 2015.

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