Managing Behavioural Disorders in Dementia

A. Mark Clarfield

The fact that dementia is finally beginning to receive the attention that it deserves is evidenced by the editors of Geriatrics & Aging wisely deciding to devote most of this issue to the subject. Dementia is primarily associated with memory loss; this means, unfortunately, that professionals often pay far less attention to the other symptoms that can accompany the syndrome. In fact, caregivers tell us that their loved one's problem with memory is usually far less burdensome than are the behavioural symptoms. Two of these symptoms are featured in this issue: agitation, by Dr. Elizabeth Sloan (a resident in Psychiatry at the U of T); and wandering, written by Dr. Bob Chaudhari, of the same department.

Dr. Sloan reminds us that agitation--sometimes accompanied by other symptoms such as screaming and aggression--is not a diagnosis per se but rather consists of a "constellation of symptoms." In geriatric care we are not afraid of such terminology, even if the terms are not always easily found in the index of Harrison's Textbook of Medicine. The same, of course, would hold for falls or incontinence.

As is the case with many of the non-specific ("atypical") presentations of disease in the elderly, Sloan points out, an underlying medical illness must never be overlooked as a possible causal factor. As I like to teach my medical students, "Take a history before prescribing haldol." (Unfortunately, now that the older anti-psychotic medications are increasingly being replaced by less toxic molecules, I'll have to figure out a new alliteration to go with, for example, risperidone--now what starts with an "r"? "rectum", no; "respiratory system"--doesn't ring true.) But I digress.

Dr. Sloan goes on to offer a great deal of good advice and the interested reader is advised to consult the references in her comprehensive bibliography.

Dr. Chaudhuri tackles the related problem of wandering, where he offers an interesting tri-partite classification which I admit that I have not seen before: volitional (depressive), motivational (anxious) and repetitive behavioural (irritable) wandering. Perhaps as a geriatrician, I am used to a more "medical" classification; but the author, not surprisingly as he is a psychiatrist, offers a more psychodynamic approach.

Like Sloan, Dr. Chaudhuri points out that management must take into account the patient's environment. Appropriately, he does not spend much time on a pharmacological approach, which is not usually an effective method unless, of course, your aim is to drug the patient into a stupor.

My own experience is that the wandering (pacing) patient with dementia must be allowed his/her own space. Obviously, as is also the case at the other end of the age spectrum with the toddler, wanderers must be protected against the obvious dangers involved. However, when all is said and done, the milieu extérieur seems to me to be of more importance than the milieu intérieur.

Dr. Clarfield is the Chief of Academic Affairs at the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, Director of Geriatrics in the Ministry of Health, and on staff in the Division of Geriatric Medicine, Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, Montreal.