For most of us, the first things we think of when it comes to dementia are the cognitive and functional declines associated with the condition. However, other aspects of dementia, such as aggression, agitation, anxiety, and psychosis (1-4), have a significant impact on the lives of patients and their caregivers.
In particular, agitation, which affects nearly 90% of dementia patients (5;6), obstructs a patient’s ability to engage in essential or desired activities, hinders relationships, decreases quality of life, and is even a factor in achieving admittance into nursing homes (7-10). For informal and formal caregivers, patient agitation also gives rise to feelings of powerlessness, stress, and poor health outcomes (1;11-13).
Given that medications used to treat agitation, such as anti-psychotics, are not highly effective and come with potentially serious risks, you may be wondering if non-drug options are an effective alternative (7;14). The answer based on a recent systematic review is…yes, some can be (5)!
What the research tells us
The non-drug options assessed in this review include: massage therapy (e.g., hand or foot massages), interventions personally tailored to people’s abilities and interests, animal-assisted interventions (e.g., petting, brushing, and feeding a dog), pet robot interventions, light therapy, music therapy, reminiscence therapy, aromatherapy, physical exercise, dementia-care mapping, and horticultural therapy (i.e., related to plants and gardening). People engaging in these non-drug approaches were generally compared to people receiving usual care or a placebo (e.g., educational presentations, water sprays, etc.).
The results demonstrate that massage therapy may lead to moderate decreases in agitation among adults with dementia, compared to usual care or placebo, while personally tailored interventions, animal-assisted interventions, and pet robot interventions may bring about small decreases in agitation. Benefits were not seen with any of the other seven non-drug approaches evaluated (5).
If you’re a person with dementia or a caregiver of someone with this condition and are struggling with agitation management, try adding a non-drug option to your treatment arsenal. With several approaches showing potential, there is more choice and a better chance of finding a strategy that works for you or your loved one. A health care provider can help with incorporating new approaches into your plan.