A person with dementia can develop false beliefs and think that someone is ‘out to get’ them. Christina Neal explains how to cope if a distressing situation like this arises. 

I remember the day well. It was the weekend before Christmas. My mum’s nursing home threw a party for the residents. It was well attended by relatives and friends and the atmosphere was upbeat. People were laughing and drinking, and everyone was in good spirits. The residents seemed very happy. Some of them didn’t get many visitors and some only saw their family once a month or even less frequently. So they were happy to have their loved ones around them.

My mum was in the late stages of her dementia and was confined to a wheelchair. I stood next to her as we watched an entertainer singing. All of a sudden, I felt something strike me in the lower back. I turned and looked at my mum. Her face was contorted with anger and her arm was outstretched. She struck me again with her outstretched arm. ‘I know what you’re up to,’ she snarled. ‘You’re out to get me. I know your game.’

Perplexed, I asked what she meant. She muttered a couple of choice insults and tried to hit me again. I moved away. As the insults continued, I made my way towards the door. I needed to get away and give mum time to calm down.

I left the nursing home and returned an hour later. Mum’s mood was completely different. When I returned, she greeted me with outstretched arms and called me her ‘lovely daughter’. I didn’t mention the earlier incident. It was never discussed. She wouldn’t have even remembered it.

I thought about it for a long time afterwards. There was a family relative who had exploited mum badly. I wondered if she had confused me with that person. Despite her dementia, she usually knew that I was there for her and only had her best interests at heart. She often used to say I was a wonderful daughter and she didn’t know what she would do without me.

I found the nursing home incident upsetting, probably because it was so public and very unexpected, but now I understand that it was nothing to do with my mum. Dementia can sometimes lead to a person having moments of paranoia, making them think that someone is out to get them. If your loved one says or does hurtful things out of the blue, try not to take their behaviour personally. Remember it’s the condition talking, not the person.

However, if starts to happen more frequently, then talk to the person’s GP and see if their medication needs to be reviewed or to find out if there is another underlying cause of the person behaving in this way. It’s also important to consider that they may be angry because they may be in pain. They could have a urinary infection, they may be overly tired due to lack of sleep or they may be hungry or dehydrated. Their medication may also be causing the side effects.

Think about things that may be causing their frustration. They may be in a noisy environment and need peace and quiet for instance. Your sentences may be too long or complex for them to understand. Try to keep statements and questions short. Most importantly, know that it’s not personal and try to reassure them and give them space. The best thing I did that day was walk away and not take it personally.