Random Nursing Tip – Dementia

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Illnesses have some features that are diagnostic and widely known.

Alzheimer’s Disease, for instance, is the most common form of dementia. Memory loss is the hallmark symptom.

There are other symptoms, of course. One of the lesser known symptoms often creates misunderstandings and trouble.

Infants have a grasp reflex: put your finger on a little palm, and those little fingers grab it. It’s a spinal cord reflex that doesn’t involve the infant’s brain: automatic. In time , that little brain grows and takes greater control over movement,  suppressing the reflex.

Interestingly, with Alzheimer’s the grasp reflex may return as a damaged brain loses the ability to mask it. Someone may grab on to your arm or a handrail and form a firm grip. It’s automatic: they may well be as surprised as you are, if they notice at all.

Sadly, others sometime mistake this reflex for a person intentionally grabbing them or a handrail, etc. They may mistake it for aggression or care resistance. Such misunderstandings often escalate into actual violence,  as both parties defend themselves from perceived attack. I’ve seen it happen many times.

Awareness of this phenomenon can help care givers reduce the risk of upset and violence. A little gentleness and patience, and the grasp resolves on its own, just as it does with an infant. Knowledge, as they say, is power. The best way to prevent things getting worse is to avoid making it worse.

Do you have any tips for nurses out there? Let’s share.


  1. As a newbie to home hospice care, a lot of my patients have dementia. I find this very helpful to know, as it was never taught to me but is a behavior I have seen in patients and have never understood–until now. Knowing this helps take away some of the fear I have when interacting with my patients.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is very interesting about the grasp reflex. Kind of almost like the rule that infants do not know that things exist, even when they can’t see them (I had to Google it – Object Permanence). I think I may already be experiencing this – but does this too return with Alzheimers?

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    1. Grasp reflex doesn’t have anything to do with your mental experience. It’s a reflex entirely controlled within the spinal cord, like the one when the doc taps your knee. Grasp reflex differs in that the normal adult brain subconsciously suppresses it.
      I don’t know of any change in object permanence. People with memory loss typically remember things for a few minutes or so, the duration of working (temporary) memory, then lose them due to inability to transfer them to permanent storage.
      It may be worth getting an assessment by a specialist if possible if you have any concerns.
      Many people who suspect dementia don’t have it; the most common example is active depression, in which poor concentration can mimic poor memory. In any case, progression in most dementia cases is very slow.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That makes sense, hence being termed grasp reflex. I really only have difficulty with short term memory when I am exhausted, otherwise I think I am doing okay. Thanks for clarifying all of this!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

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