Crying and Calling Out in People With Dementia

Calling or crying out can happen for many reasons in those with Alzheimer's disease or another forms of dementia. The triggers may include physical pain or hunger, psychological distress, or overstimulation in their environment.

A person with dementia may repeatedly call out, "Help me!" or become tearful and cry frequently. They may suddenly have a screaming episode and you don't know how to help them.

This can be very distressing to experience, both for the person with dementia and those around them. It can also cause frustration in caregivers when it seems like the person may be crying out for no apparent reason. 

This article describes possible triggers for crying and calling out in those with dementia and things you can try that may help them.

Nurse talking to older man in home
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Triggers for Crying and Calling Out in Dementia

There are a few possible reasons why someone with dementia may cry, callout, or have a similar outburst:

  • Physical causes: Pain, restlessness, hunger, a need to use the bathroom, etc.
  • External causes: An environment that is too busy, loud noises, a change in routine, etc.
  • Psychological causes: Loneliness, boredom, anxiety, depression, and delusions

These instances can be triggered by true distress. At other times, crying appears to be more of habitual behavior.

Crying and calling out is sometimes more common in other types of dementia including vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body dementia. These behaviors may also increase later in the day due to sundowning, a condition common in dementia where behaviors and emotions escalate toward the evening.

Sometimes, people with dementia may have periods of time when they are screaming out loud but can't tell you why. They may be feeling anxious or fearful, or be experiencing hallucinations or paranoia. 

Finally, pseudobulbar affect (also known as PBA) can trigger excessive crying, as well as inappropriate laughter. In this condition, the crying and/or laughing happens suddenly and frequently. Those with PBA might begin to cry and not know why they're doing so.

How to Help the Person With Dementia

There are times when it appears there's no reason for the person with dementia to call out or cry—at least none that you can determine. Sometimes, people seem to "get stuck" exhibiting a behavior without a reason.

However, before you write off crying or calling out as meaningless, consider the following interventions to make sure you're doing everything possible to help:

  • Notice any time that the person is not calling out or crying: Observe the environment, time of day, if it's after they just ate dinner or just received care, or if it's when they're in their favorite activity. When possible, recreate the situation that occurred when they were content.
  • Assess them for depression and anxiety: Both calling out and crying can be symptoms of anxiety and depression in dementia.
  • Involve them in meaningful activities, such as gardening, cleaning, or video call to family members.
  • Conduct an assessment to ensure they are not in pain or discomfort.
  • Ask the physician or pharmacist to review their list of medications: Sometimes, a particular medication or combination of medications can cause disorientation and distress.
  • Don't give up: Most of the time, the challenging behaviors that are present in dementia do have meaning, and our job as family members and caregivers is to continue to work to improve the quality of life for people with dementia.

Activities to Try

If you've made sure that the basic needs of the person with dementia have been met and they continue to cry or call out, try some of these activities, which may be comforting to them:

  • Favorite music: Know what their music of choice is and turn it on for them. This can comfort and distract them.
  • Pet therapy: A warm, fuzzy animal can provide many benefits to those around them.
  • Interaction with children: Young children have a way of engaging the attention of many, including those living with dementia.
  • Fresh air: A change of scenery can brighten the day.
  • Snack or drink: Sometimes, a tasty snack or drink can distract and provide comfort.
  • Gentle and reassuring touch: Try holding her hand, rubbing her shoulder or brushing her hair. These touches, which are ones that convey love and concern instead of performing a necessary such as helping get her dressed for the day, are important to her quality of life. 

A Word From Verywell

Sometimes, behaviors in dementia are like a challenging puzzle to solve. We don't have the complete answer key to this puzzle, but we do know that often, there are things we can do to help. As caregivers and family members, we should always continue to work to solve the puzzle.

Finally, don't forget that sometimes, our own stress may be impacting the person with dementia by increasing their anxiety or stress. Preventing caregiver overload by taking a break for a few minutes is important for the well-being of both you and your loved one. 

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kales HC, Gitlin LN, Lyketsos CG. Assessment and management of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. BMJ. 2015;350:h369. doi:10.1136/bmj.h369 

  2. Canevelli M, Valletta M, Trebbastoni A, et al. Sundowning in dementia: clinical relevance, pathophysiological determinants, and therapeutic approaches. Front Med (Lausanne). 2016;3:73. doi:10.3389/fmed.2016.00073

  3. Ahmed A, Simmons Z. Pseudobulbar affect: prevalence and management. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2013;9:483-9. doi:10.2147/TCRM.S53906

  4. Williams, A, Ackroyd RA. Identifying and managing pain for patients with advanced dementia. GM. 2017 Apr;47(4).

Additional Reading

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.