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Addressing Agitation and Aggression in Hospice Patients 

As a doctor working closely with hospice patients for years, I’ve encountered numerous challenging situations that have underscored the significance of addressing agitation and aggression in these vulnerable individuals. These experiences have not only highlighted the complexity of end-of-life care but also reinforced the importance of a holistic approach to managing patient distress.  

One memorable case involved a patient who exhibited physical aggression towards both caregivers and fellow patients. The root cause of his aggression became apparent when we delved deeper into his history: he was deeply devoted to his faith and was distressed by the fact that he couldn’t practice his religious rituals. This realization prompted us to take action. We worked diligently to create a dedicated prayer room within the hospice facility where he could find solace and engage in his spiritual practices. Remarkably, his aggressive behavior subsided, demonstrating the profound impact of addressing his unmet spiritual needs.  

In another instance, a patient’s persistent agitation and sleeplessness disrupted the hospice environment. It was a challenging puzzle to decipher the underlying cause. After a careful assessment, we discovered that inadequate pain management was at the heart of his distress. Adjusting his analgesic regimen provided him with the relief he desperately needed, and as a result, his demeanor transformed, creating a more serene atmosphere for everyone involved. 

Lastly, I recall a patient whose anxiety levels were off the charts due to a combination of his terminal illness and unresolved PTSD. While we were effectively managing his physical pain, his psychological suffering remained largely unaddressed. It wasn’t until we initiated therapy for his PTSD that we witnessed a remarkable change in his disposition. By providing the emotional support and counseling he needed, we were able to alleviate his anxiety significantly, ultimately enhancing his quality of life during his remaining days.  

These experiences serve as reminders of the factors that contribute to agitation and aggression in hospice patients. They reinforce the vital role of a multidisciplinary approach to care, where physical, psychological, and spiritual needs are all considered. However, I have experienced instances where me or my colleagues needed help when the aggression got out of control. Now, let’s discuss how to deal with such difficult situations in a compassionate and empathetic manner as healthcare providers. 

Assessment and Communication in Management: 

Effective communication lies at the heart of understanding the needs and triggers of hospice patients exhibiting agitation and aggression. Patients in hospice care often face profound physical discomfort and emotional distress, which can manifest as challenging behaviors. Engaging in open and empathetic dialogues with patients is essential for healthcare providers to gain insight into the underlying causes of these behaviors. In my experiences as a doctor, I’ve witnessed how a simple conversation can lead to significant breakthroughs in understanding a patient’s distress. By actively listening to their concerns and fears, healthcare providers can identify triggers such as uncontrolled pain, unmet spiritual or emotional needs, or unresolved psychological trauma. Recognizing these triggers enables tailored interventions to alleviate the patient’s suffering effectively. 

Hospice Care Team Roles: 

The hospice care team plays a pivotal role in assessing and addressing agitation and aggression.  

Nurses, with their close and continuous contact with patients, are often the first to notice changes in behavior. Their observations serve as valuable clues in understanding the patient’s condition. Nurses can also administer pain assessments and monitor the effectiveness of pain management, ensuring that physical discomfort is adequately addressed. 

Social workers within the hospice care team are invaluable in assessing the patient’s emotional and psychological well-being. They are skilled in conducting thorough psychosocial assessments and identifying any unresolved issues, such as anxiety, depression, or past trauma. Collaborating with the patient’s healthcare providers, social workers can devise comprehensive care plans that address both the physical and emotional aspects of distress. 

Contribution of Family Members: 

Family members are essential partners in the assessment process. They often possess valuable insights into the patient’s history, preferences, and triggers. Encouraging family members to communicate their observations and concerns actively fosters understanding of the patient’s condition. Furthermore, family members can provide emotional support and comfort to the patient. Sometimes, the mere presence of a loved one can alleviate agitation and aggression. Family members can also assist in creating a calming and familiar environment for the patient, which can be especially beneficial in reducing distress. 

The collaborative efforts of the hospice care team, including nurses and social workers, alongside the insights and support of family members, ensure a more comprehensive and compassionate approach to addressing the unique needs of each patient in hospice care. 


In the hospice setting, medication adjustments are not a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, modifying medications for patients nearing the end of life can be particularly complex due to various factors, including the patient’s fragile health, the potential for drug interactions, and individual tolerance levels. Healthcare professionals, including physicians, pharmacists, and palliative care specialists, should be actively engaged in this process. They bring a nuanced understanding of pharmacology and symptom management to the table. Their involvement ensures that medication changes are evidence-based, tailored to the patient’s specific needs, and administered with meticulous attention to potential risks and benefits. 

Moreover, involving healthcare professionals helps mitigate the risk of overmedication or inappropriate drug choices, which can have detrimental consequences for hospice patients. It promotes a collaborative and patient-centered approach, where the patient’s comfort and quality of life remain paramount. 

Tips to Address Agitation and Aggression: 

It’s important to always try De-escalation Techniques. These are applied in various ways: 

Maintain Calmness: During an aggressive episode, it’s crucial for caregivers to remain calm. Anxiety or frustration from caregivers can exacerbate the patient’s agitation. 

Verbal De-Escalation: Use non-confrontational language and a gentle tone. Speak softly and reassuringly, acknowledging the patient’s feelings without judgment. 

Personal Space: Give the patient personal space and avoid invading their comfort zone. Stand at a safe distance to reduce the perception of a threat. 

Redirect Attention: Try to redirect the patient’s attention to a calming activity or topic of interest. Distracting them from the source of agitation can be effective. 

Physical Safety: However, one should never compromise on his/her safety. While it is always beneficial to make sure you de-escalate the situation and stop it from worsening, there are times when this fails. In times like these, I have provided some tips that might help keep one safe: 

Call for Assistance: If the situation escalates and poses a risk to safety, don’t hesitate to call for assistance from fellow caregivers or healthcare professionals. Having additional support can help manage the situation more effectively. 

Physical Restraints: Use physical restraints as a last resort and only in cases where there is an imminent threat to the patient or others. Their use should comply with healthcare regulations and guidelines. 

Protective Gear: In situations with a risk of injury, caregivers should consider wearing protective gear such as gloves to minimize the risk of physical harm. 

Documentation and Reporting: 

Document the Incident: After the episode, caregivers should document what transpired, including the triggers, actions taken, and the patient’s response. This documentation can be valuable for future care planning and assessment. 

Reporting: Inform the healthcare team about the incident, including nurses and physicians. They may need to reassess the patient’s care plan and make necessary adjustments. 

In conclusion, managing agitation and aggression in hospice patients demands a holistic, patient-centered approach. Compassion, effective communication, and collaboration among healthcare professionals and caregivers are paramount. 

I encourage readers to seek professional help and support when needed. Hospice care is a challenging journey, and there are numerous resources and organizations, which I have provided the links below, that are available to provide guidance and assistance. By working together and approaching these challenges with empathy, we can enhance the quality of life for hospice patients. Thus providing them with the care and comfort they deserve during their final days.  


https://www.nhpco.org/ Home | NHPCO 

https://aahpm.org/ American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (aahpm.org) 

https://hospicefoundation.org/ Hospice Foundation Of America – Home 

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