What is a Dementia Catastrophic Reaction?

Dementia catastrophic reactions can be overwhelming and difficult to understand for both the person with dementia and their caregivers. Learn more about what causes these reactions, common triggers, and how to respond and manage them in this helpful guide.

What is a Dementia Catastrophic Reaction?
Dementia Catastrophic Reaction

Dementia Catastrophic Reaction are responses to an apparently regular, non-threatening situation. The use of the word “catastrophic” indicates that there is a disaster, or some horrible event that occurred. It appears to be the how it must  feel to the family member with dementia when experiencing this type of reaction.

According to a research study  by the College of Rochester Medical Center, dementia catastrophic reactions are 5 times most likely to occur in individuals who are in the middle stages of dementia, rather than the later phases or early stages. This seems to be due to the fact that individuals experiencing the middle stages of dementia could typically still know and realize their deficits and decline in abilities, but no longer have be able to cope or compensate with any longer.

Confusion and Dementia

What Are Catastrophic Reactions?

Physical acting out and hostile behaviors and highly emotional types of  such as hitting, kicking, and extreme anxiety.   Individuals experiences of acute feelings of  uncontrollable emotional outbursts such as shouting, screaming or sobbing frantically. Whate causes this behavior remains unclear.

Why Does a Dementia Catastrophic Reaction Occur ?

The exact cause of catastrophic reactions in individuals with dementia is still unclear. Possible causes include: exposure to triggers, such as a certain environment or situation; fear of the unknown; anxiety or frustration due to an inability to communicate or express themselves; or physical discomfort. Understanding the underlying cause can help caregivers and healthcare professionals identify potential solutions to effectively manage catastrophic reactions.

Different approaches can be used to help manage catastrophic reactions, such as distraction techniques, providing a safe space for the individual to relax, and talking through their feelings with them. It is important that caregivers remain patient and approach the situation with compassion, as this type of reaction can be very overwhelming and distressing to both the individual and the caregiver. Additionally, it is important that caregivers provide a supportive environment to help prevent further distress or panic.

It is helpful for caregivers to define catastrophic reactions in order to better manage them when they occur. Catastrophic reactions are extreme emotional responses, often sudden, intense and overwhelming. By understanding what causes these reactions, as well as the best ways to manage them, both the individual and the caregiver can find ways to work together and cope with this type of reaction.

By understanding what causes a catastrophic reaction, caregivers are better equipped to prevent or ease such reactions in individuals living with dementia. It is important that caregivers provide an environment that is safe, supportive and understanding, as this can help to reduce episodes of catastrophic reactions. With careful management, both the individual and the caregiver can create a calm and safe atmosphere.

Catastrophic reactions usually occur from  a sense of confusion, fear or distress that is triggered by a particular event or situation. It is important to be aware of the potential triggers and take steps to avoid them in order to help prevent these reactions from happening. By providing a stable and caring environment, as well as access to appropriate health care professionals, families can ensure their loved one with dementia has the best quality of life possible.

Individuals with dementia no longer have the ability can translate reality with logic. They are now ruled by their emotions.  Sensations of being overwhelmed or overstimulated  by the environment. For example,if the lights are very bright,there are numerous people talking at once and the tv is on, a  dementia catastrophic reaction would most likely take place.
Some individuals with dementia may also experience paranoia and delusions, which can make them extremely afraid of others, even those that are providing care. A catastrophic reaction occurs because person with dementia perceives  they are in a threatening or traumatic situation.

Some dementia patients may have had previous unpleasant experiences that could influence how they react or  respond to attempts to assist with bathing or dressing.

The College of Rochester study found that the most common trigger for a dementia catastrophic reaction is assistance with individual hygiene tasks. It also determined that  evening time is the most frequent time of day that a dementia catastrophic reaction may occur.

Can a Dementia Catastrophic Reaction Be Prevented?

Often, the method you interact and communicate with others can influence how they  react or respond to you. Remember, the a person with dementia may not understand what you are saying to them, but HOW you are speaking to them. They pick up on your emotions.

Dealing with Verbal or Physical Outbursts

Right here are some possible approaches you can make use of to avoid catastrophic reactions from occuring :

Always approach the dementia patient from the front, rather than the back or side, which could alarm them.
Don’t appear rushed, frustrated or irritated.
Know the person’s preferences. Some individuals react really positively to touch and others bristle even if somebody invades their personal space.
Discuss plainly, and calmly, what you would like to have the person do prior to attempting to do it. (“Dinner’s ready. Let’s walk together to the table.”).
Don’t argue or criticize with a person who has dementia.
Avoid over-fatigue if possible.
As much as possible, avoid sudden changes in routine.
Assess the situation and observes for symptoms of anxiety or causes of pain or stress. Offer treatment, if suitable.

How Should a Caregiver Respond  to  a Dementia Catastrophic Reaction?

Give the individual physical space.
If you know what triggered the reaction, stop it immediately. That may mean turning off the TV, asking others to speak quietly, or even lowering the lights. If it is absolutely necessary task at that particular time, you may want to take a break and try later, using a different approach.

Don’t use restraints or force.

Be respectful, not patronizing. Make eye contact and speak slowly.

Use the individual’s name.

Allow extra time to relax and become calm.

Reassurance is so important at this time. If your family member has an object to something that gives them comfort ( a baby doll, a stuffed animal) allow them to have it.

Using diversion as your family member  starts to calm down. Offer a snack, a walk, or even assistance with a chore.

A dementia catastrophic reaction is traumatic for the dementia patient , so encouraging a diversion will allow them to concentrate on something else.

More on Catastrophic Reactions 

If your family member  has actually experienced a dementia catastrophic reaction previously, you should constantly keep in mind exactly what appeared to trigger the response. You will need to assess what occurred prior to the response and put things in place to try and prevent that behavior, if at all possible.

If a dementia catastrophic  reaction is uncommon for your family member, you will also want to consider if she has any changes in their health that could be causing this behavior. Observe for signs and symptoms of  pain or  discomfort, such as a fall or other injury. Or is your family member experiencing delirium. Delirium (normally caused by an infection or various other diseases) can trigger an abrupt change in mental status and/or behaviors, and it can appear as enhanced confusion or uncharacteristic resistive and aggressive behaviors.

Contact your health care provider to discuss the changes and ask if a Urinary Tract Infection or other infection may need to be ruled out.

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Have more questions? Check out the Frequently Asked Question section of the website. You will find a lot of different questions answered directly.

To learn more about Dementia Behaviors and how to handle them