Why Do People with Dementia Rummage through Drawers and Cupboards?

Rummaging in Dementia Can Be a Challenging Behavior
Jupiterimages / Getty Images

Perhaps you've seen your loved one who has dementia repeatedly rearrange, empty out and refill dresser drawers, and then move on to the cupboard and do the same thing there. This activity is known as rummaging, and it's a behavior that sometimes develops in Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia

Why Is Rummaging Considered a Challenging Behavior in Dementia?

Rummaging can be very frustrating for caregivers because it can make quite a mess.

The entire contents of dressers may be removed and sometimes can be hidden all over the room. Caregivers can feel like they're constantly putting things back or trying to find what the person with dementia has moved around.

Sometimes, rummaging can be a concern for the person with dementia if it is related to anxiety and causing distress.

At other times, rummaging seems to be an enjoyable activity, such as where the person is sorting items or going through familiar items which may be reassuring to them.

Why Does Rummaging Develop in Dementia?

Sometimes, people rummage because they've hidden an item and can't remember where they placed it. This may result in them believing that it was stolen from them. 

Other people appear to rummage to go through items that are familiar and reassuring to them.This desire to have familiar things around them can sometimes be combined with hoarding extra items, whether it's food, papers or clothes.

Rummaging may also be triggered by boredom. People with dementia at times may experience loneliness and boredom, and sorting through the things around them can occupy their time,

How Should You Respond to Rummaging?

While you may be tempted to try to stop the rummaging, consider why the person is doing it.

If it seems to be serving a positive purpose such as reassuring her, consider how you can allow for the behavior. Start with these tips: 

1) Remove items that are valuable or could pose a danger.

2) Provide a drawer or even a whole dresser full of items that are safe and inexpensive. 

3) Offer alternate activities such as sorting colored socks or folding washcloths. 

4) Use distraction strategies and provide other meaningful activities, especially if you believe that boredom is responsible for the rummaging behaviors.

5) Create a rummage box by using a shoe box to hold special pictures (but make sure you have kept the originals in a safe place), items related to his hobbies, or objects that he used to work with at his work.

6) If she appears to be anxious while she rummages, try to figure out why. If it's because she's looking for a specific object and can't find it, consider buying several of that object or a close replica to provide her with reassurance. Sometimes, one particular object can make someone with dementia feel grounded and safe.

7) If her rummaging seems to bring her pleasure and is not posing a significant issue other than creating a mess at times, don't sweat it. Think of it as an activity that brings her joy and reassurance.

8) However, if your loved one's rummaging seems related to emotional distress such as a consistent paranoia that someone is stealing from her, be sure to report this behavior to the doctor to discuss other possible treatment options to improve her quality of life.

Alzheimer's Association. Rummaging, Hiding, and Hoarding Behaviors. December 2015. https://www.alz.org/stl/documents/HoardingRummaging.pdf

Cornell University. Environmental Geriatrics. Accessed March 26, 2016. http://www.environmentalgeriatrics.com/home_safety/working_with.html

Home Instead Senior Care. How to Create and Use the Rummage Box. September 9, 2013. http://www.homeinstead.ie/blog/home-care-blog/2013/09/09/How_to_Create_and_Use_the_Rummage_Box.aspx

Continue Reading