6 Things to Try Before Using Antipsychotics for Dementia Behaviors

how to handle dementia behaviors

Medication can’t always solve difficult dementia behaviors

When someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia has challenging behaviors like aggression, anxiety, or agitation, it can be exhausting and frustrating for caregivers.

The first solution that comes to mind might be behavioral medication, usually antipsychotics.

Unfortunately, these medications are typically not helpful.

We found a handy tip sheet created by the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) and Choosing Wisely that explains why antipsychotic medications for dementia aren’t recommended as the first choice for treatment – the risks often outweigh the benefits.

We explain why the AGS doesn’t generally recommend antipsychotic medications for dementia, share 6 non-drug ways for how to handle dementia behaviors, and explain when antipsychotics should be considered.


Why antipsychotic medications for dementia aren’t recommended

1. Antipsychotic drugs don’t help much
According to the AGS, studies have found that antipsychotic drugs usually don’t reduce challenging behavior in older adults with dementia.

2. Antipsychotic drugs can cause serious side effects
Doctors may prescribe antipsychotic drugs “off-label” for use in treating dementia behaviors, but the FDA has not approved them for this purpose.

The side effects can be very serious and the FDA now requires the strongest warning labels on these drugs.

Side effects include:

  • Drowsiness and confusion
  • Increased falls
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Shaking or tremors (which can be permanent)
  • Pneumonia
  • Stroke
  • Sudden death


How to handle dementia behaviors: 6 things to try

In most cases, it’s best to try other approaches before using antipsychotic medications to manage challenging dementia behaviors.

1. Get a thorough physical exam and medication review
Having their doctor give a thorough exam and full medication review is a good first step to figuring out the root cause of difficult behavior.

Because people with dementia can’t communicate discomfort or needs, these behaviors may have a physical cause like constipation, infection, chronic pain, vision or hearing problems, or sleep problems.

Plus, many common medication side effects and combinations of medicines (due to drug interactions) can cause added confusion and agitation in older adults. That could lead to challenging behaviors.

2. Stick to a regular daily routine
If your older adult is losing their cognitive abilities, their world gets filled with more and more unknowns.

If their days aren’t structured, life can become even more stressful because they may not know what to expect next.

Having a regular daily routine can reduce difficult behaviors, improve sleep, and reduce sundowning symptoms.

3. Help them exercise regularly
Regular exercise has many physical and mental benefits for all people, but can be especially helpful for older adults with dementia.

Exercise can slow cognitive decline, boost mood, burn off nervous energy, and improve sleep.

There’s even a home exercise routine that improves dementia symptoms. Get more exercise suggestions here.

4. Learn new communication skills
Something that’s less obvious is that we need to learn new ways to communicate with someone with dementia.

Their cognitive abilities are declining, which means that our “normal” methods may not work well anymore and could actually cause conflicts.

For example, certain natural actions may unintentionally cause your older adult to resist help.

Try these tips to make sure they’re not startled by your attempt to help.

Additional dementia communication tips:

5. Keep them entertained with engaging, no-fail activities
Boredom can also contribute to challenging behaviors. Everyone needs to have something to do and a way to have fun and feel successful.

Helping your older adult find activities that suit their current abilities and interests is a great way to boost their mood and self-esteem while reducing anxiety and agitation.

Some ideas:

6. Consider other types of medications


When antipsychotic medication may be needed

There may be situations where antipsychotic medications may be necessary.

  • If other approaches haven’t worked
  • Your older adult is severely distressed
  • They could hurt themselves, you, or others

If an antipsychotic medication is used, use these tips for best results:

  • Start at the lowest possible dose and increase a little bit at a time – the goal is to find the minimum necessary dose to keep behavior manageable
  • Watch carefully to see if your older adult improves
  • Watch carefully for side effects

If the medication isn’t working or causes side effects, let the doctor know right away so they can come up with an alternate plan. Don’t stop or change doses without doctor approval.


Next Step  Save or print the tip sheet on how to reduce and manage challenging dementia behaviors without antipsychotic drugs from the American Geriatrics Society and Choosing Wisely (PDF)


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By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: LifeCare Advocates


This article wasn’t sponsored and doesn’t contain affiliate links. For more information, see How We Make Money.


  • Reply February 3, 2021

    Mark Cumming

    I have always found that it is individualized care that works best. There is no one answer for everyone. Yet careful observation and analysis of the situation will let you know what works for that individual. Even people who have the same condition and are roughly at the same level will still react in their own way. When caring for someone like this you just have to go with the flow. One day I would be able to provide the care the next I would be like Hitler and totally repulsive to the individual.

  • Reply November 8, 2020


    I have a older friend that has this she loves doll are anything l make her she gets so excited when I can go see her

    • Reply November 10, 2020


      It’s wonderful that you’re able to bring your friend so much joy!

  • Reply September 23, 2019

    Jean Weier

    Antipsychotics are a good source to control symptoms with Parkinson’s plus history of Bi-Polar 1 with psychotic and hallucinating manic episodes. I was sure Parkinson’s had stopped any possibility of manic episodes due to the depression. A low dose stopped all ruminating psychosis and I agree low dose but don’t be afraid to control these behaviors. I still hide certain objects that tended to prompt these episodes I.e, Angel throw pillow that was my deceased mothers, war pictures he has PTSD as well so not good.

  • Reply September 23, 2019

    June Criger

    9-23-19 We have appt. for the 25th with Neurologist and I planned to speak to him about removing my husband from Quetiapine which he has been on for about 6 mos. He uses a walker and did not have good balance, and it is worse and with one of the detriments to this med being “falling” among those listed, I am considering
    the removal of my husband from this drug. He sometimes falls 3x a day. He normally has sleep problems and that has become aggravated as well slurred speech. Thank you for this edition of Caring as it has answered a lot of questions one can’t get answers to unless they see their physician all the time. The drug has helped with his nasty outbursts at night, sometimes they last all night.

    • Reply September 28, 2019


      So glad you’ll be able to speak with the doctor about your husbands frequent falls, that can be dangerous. In the future, you can always call the doctor’s office as soon as a side effect starts happening. Hopefully the doctor will be able to find a solution that won’t cause falls, but will help with his symptoms.

  • Reply July 6, 2018

    D Jones

    These tips would work for someone with ALZ, but for someone with frontotemporal dementia, behaviors often become more bizarre and aggressive, though memories may still be fairly intact. I suggest that you deal with at least frontotemporal dementia separately, instead of bunching it together under the umbrella of “ALZ and dementia”. There is a significant difference – I speak from experience.

    • Reply July 10, 2018


      That’s true, each type of dementia is different and each person and situation will also be different. These suggestions may not work for every person or every situation. They’re intended to give people ideas for how they can manage challenging behaviors. When situations become too difficult or dangerous for families to handle on their own, it’s always helpful to engage professionals who have the expertise to help.

      In case it’s helpful, we have an article specifically about frontotemporal dementia — http://dailycaring.com/what-is-frontotemporal-dementia-get-the-essential-facts/

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