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Coping with repetitive behaviour caused by dementia

12:00am | & Health

FOR family members and even professional carers who look after someone with dementia, one of the hardest symptoms to cope with is repetitive behaviour.

Someone with dementia might repeat the same phrase, ask the same question or carry out the same action over and over again. Even when carers know that this behaviour is not intentional, it can still be extremely frustrating and difficult to deal with, testing patience to breaking point.

To help with this scenario, experts at ‘unforgettable’ ­– a company devoted to meeting the needs of dementia carers – have provided valuable advice on coping with repetitive behaviour. Common examples include:

  • saying the same word or phrase, or asking the same question, time after time
  • adopting unexplained (and potentially embarrassing or annoying) gestures or mannerisms which are repeated continually
  • insisting on walking up and down, or round in circles, for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately, these and other types of repetitive behaviour are common symptoms of dementia and can quickly become a major source of tension and irritation between sufferers and their carers. However, there are coping mechanisms which carers can adopt, based on understanding the causes of repetitive behaviour and what might help address them.

First of all, carers need to remember that repetitive behaviour by people with dementia is very rarely deliberate or designed to antagonise, even though it might seem that way at times! Neither is it dangerous in most cases, so rather than worry about it, you can look for ways to cope with it. The three most common causes of repetitive behaviour are forgetfulness and memory loss, insecurity, and boredom. Let’s look at each in more detail:

Forgetfulness and memory loss: As dementia progresses, brain cells deteriorate making it more and more difficult for the person to make sense of the world around them and retain information. In some cases, they might remember seemingly trivial events from years ago, but not recall asking you a question five minutes ago, leading them to ask it again.

There are lots of practical ways to cope with increasing memory loss, such as leaving reminder notes around the house or making sure the person with dementia has easy access to things like an easy-to-understand calendar and clock, so they know what day and time it is without constantly asking.

Insecurity: If the person you’re caring for is worried or anxious it can manifest itself in repetitive behaviour. When the world around them starts to feel strange and unfamiliar, there is comfort and security to be found in regularly repeating the same routine. We all appreciate a routine to give structure to our lives – repetitive behaviour might be an extreme version of that desire.

If you can find ways to ease the person’s anxiety, it might lessen their repetitive behaviour. It will differ with every person, but it could be simply holding their hand, talking in a gentle and soothing tone and reassuring them that all’s well. It’s hard, but try to avoid showing irritation or snapping: “You asked me that five minutes ago!” Any hostility will only heighten their anxiety.

Boredom: If a person with dementia has a daily life which lacks stimulation, they might try to fill the void with repetitive behaviour, like a scratched record playing the same groove over and over.

If what they’re doing is causing no harm, you could leave them to it and not worry about it – the behaviour is serving a purpose. But you could also try to stimulate them with a variety of activities, lifting the needle on the record player out of that scratched groove, at least for a time.

Whatever is causing repetitive behaviour and however it is manifested, try to keep your cool. You could study the behaviour and look for patterns to try to find what triggers it. Does it happen at a particular time of the day, a day of the week, or after a particular interaction? If you can identify a trigger for the behaviour, you can develop strategies to cope better yourself and perhaps help to lessen the person’s need for it.

• The ‘unforgettable’ website is full of help, advice and information aimed at anyone who cares for someone with dementia. It also offers a range of products which can be of significant practical help. To visit the website, click here.

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