Is Repetition in Dementia Driving You Crazy?

Repetition in Dementia/ Andy Roberts Collection: OJO Images /Getty Images.

Know someone with Alzheimer's or another kind of dementia? Whether it's a family member, dear friend or someone you're caring for, sometimes, repetition might put you near (or over) the edge. Understanding why someone might get stuck on "repeat" is important to maintaining your sanity as well as your gentle and patient approach.

Types of Repetition

  • Questions: Where's Jimmy? When can I go home? What time is lunch? Where are you going? What are you doing? What day is it?
  • Phrases: I want my mother. Help me. Help me. I want to go home. Don't leave me!
  • Actions: Wandering. Scrubbing the towel bar. Packing her bags. Rummaging through the dresser drawers. Making phone calls. Following you like your shadow. Washing the clean dishes. Setting the table. Trying to leave the house.

Why Does Dementia Cause Some People to Repeat Questions, Phrases or Actions?

This is the most basic reason- she honestly forgot that she asked you that question three times already this morning. She can't remember that she already called your sister twice last night, or that her mother passed away many years ago.

  • Repetition due to Anxiety or Agitation

Anxiety or agitation is often an underlying issue in repetition. It may cause someone to ask when her son is coming home, every five minutes. She may be worried that her son is late or lost, that he needs help, or she may simply miss him.

She may unpack her dresser drawers multiple times and not know what she is looking for, yet feel like she is missing something. She may repeat questions about her mother because she is anxious and her mother used to be able to calm and reassure her. Her action of washing the dishes again may be an  attempt to self-soothe (calm herself) through a familiar activity.

  • Repetition due to Restlessness or Boredom

Perhaps she needs to move around, get up and go for a walk, or stretch her legs. Does she have anything else to do? Sometimes, people can "get stuck" in behaviors when there hasn't been another option presented. Boredom is, in my opinion, an under-recognized problem in the world of dementia.

Consider if your loved one or patient is in pain, thirsty, hungry or too cold. Is it too loud in the room? Is she washing that table repeatedly because there's a glare on it? Is he banging his wheelchair against the door because he sees the sunshine and hasn't been outside lately?

How to Respond

  • Reassure her that you are here to help.
  • Take a deep breath and answer his question again, this time in a different way.
  • Write it down or hang up a sign.
  • Evaluate for discomfort, thirst, hunger or the need to use the bathroom.
  • Provide a meaningful activity to do.
  • Don't argue or remind him that he already asked this question. It never helps.
  • Look for the emotion behind it and use validation.
  • If you're losing your patience, give yourself a timeout. Go into the bathroom, if necessary, so that you can remind yourself of the need for a gentle response.

    Related Reading


    Alzheimer's Association. Repetition and Alzheimer's. Accessed November 25, 2014.

    Alzheimer's Society. Unusual Behavior. November 2010.

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