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9 Ways to Manage Dementia Rummaging Behavior

dementia rummaging behavior

Dementia can cause seniors to rummage through belongings

When seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease won’t stop rummaging through their things, it can be disruptive, frustrating, and make a mess.

Your older adult may repeatedly dig through drawers and cabinets or search rooms over and over again.

They might take items from one place, hide them all over the house, and then get upset when they can’t find those things. Or, they might repeatedly re-organize things.

As disruptive or annoying as this can be, the important thing to remember is that the dementia is causing the behavior. Your older adult isn’t doing it on purpose to bother you or create more work.

Understanding what’s causing this behavior helps you respond without causing arguments. That minimizes conflicts, which makes life easier and less stressful for both of you.

We explain what causes dementia rummaging behavior and share 9 ways to help you manage it – with plenty of ideas and examples.


What causes dementia rummaging behavior?

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias cause problems with memory and thinking. This can lead to repetitive or challenging behaviors.

Rummaging is a coping mechanism for the disorientation that dementia causes.

The person with dementia is usually trying to reassure themselves that familiar items are still there or are trying to fulfill a need, like eating when hungry or doing something useful.

Attempting to get someone to stop rummaging or re-organizing can cause them to become increasingly agitated, paranoid, and determined to do it.

Instead, manage the behavior so it’s safer and less disruptive.

9 ways to manage dementia rummaging behavior

1. Make sure they won’t accidentally hurt themselves

If dangerous items are easily accessible, seniors with dementia could easily mistake them for safe objects and hurt themselves.

For example, they may not recognize knives as harmful objects and could cut themselves. Or they could mistake toxic products like cleaning fluids for normal beverages.

To keep them safe while they’re rummaging, remove potentially dangerous items and keep them out of sight in secured, locked areas.

Spoiled food (or even raw meat) in the refrigerator or cabinets could also be a risk. People with dementia might be looking for a snack, but aren’t able to recognize when food isn’t safe to eat.

Clear out food as it expires and make it difficult to access raw foods or cook them right away.

2. Protect valuables and important documents

Your older adult’s rummaging behavior might stress you out because they could lose or destroy valuable items or important papers.

The best solution is to remove anything of value or importance and lock them safely away.

That could include jewelry, legal or financial documents, checkbooks, credit cards, or keys. You could even replace some items with fakes so your older adult won’t notice they’re gone.

Another concern is that your older adult could be hiding or throwing away the mail. If that’s happening, you may want to redirect all their mail to a post office box or a trusted relative or friend’s house.


3. Look for triggers

Sometimes, a person with dementia might start rummaging in response to a triggering event. Maybe they do it at a certain time each day, when they get bored, or when they’re agitated.

You may find that sticking to a regular daily routine helps because it gives structure and rhythm to the day. That reduces the uncertainty and anxiety that could trigger rummaging.

Try to look for patterns in their behavior and see if you can figure out what might be causing their rummaging.

You could use distraction strategies like engaging them in an activity they enjoy or maybe having a snack and favorite beverage.

4. Make commonly used items easy to find

Your older adult might have a valid reason for rummaging. They could be looking for a specific item, but can’t find it and can’t explain what they’re looking for.

Helping them easily see or locate commonly used items is another way to reduce rummaging behavior.

You could put things in clear containers or specific drawers and label the contents.

Or keep similar items together, like gathering a certain amount of clothing into one drawer – underwear, tops, bottoms, socks, etc.

5. Have backups of frequently lost items

Some older adults don’t feel at ease until they know exactly where a specific object is. If that’s the case, consider buying multiples of that thing or as similar an item as possible.

For example, if your mom is always looking for her purse, buy a few inexpensive ones that are the same or similar style. That way you’ll always be able to help her “find” it.

6. Reduce overall anxiety levels

In some cases, rummaging is a response to feeling anxious or agitated.

If you notice that your older adult seems frantic or anxious while they’re rummaging, it’s helpful to try and figure out the cause.

Repetitive behavior like rummaging can be soothing to someone who is feeling anxious. Simply going through familiar items can be comforting.

If this is the case, reducing their overall anxiety level can reduce their need to rummage.

7. Reduce boredom with activities

Rummaging behavior could also be caused by boredom or loneliness.

People with dementia might not be able to find satisfying activities for themselves. Or they may need to interact with more people.

For some people, group interaction and activities in adult day programs may be a good solution. Others may enjoy having more visitors, whether it’s family, friends, or an in-home caregiver.

Offering a variety of no-fail activities is another way to reduce rummaging behavior. Having something engaging and absorbing to do distracts from the urge to rummage and redirects their attention.

Many seniors with dementia enjoy listening and singing along to music, caring for dolls, simple puzzles, coloring, and more.

Experiment with different activities to see which ones your older adult likes.

8. Help them feel productive

What looks like rummaging to us could be a way for your older adult to feel like they’re doing something productive.

In that case, it helps to offer alternate activities that help them feel like they’re being productive and contributing to the household.

You could ask them to help you with simple tasks they’ll be able to do successfully.

For example, ask them to fold socks or washcloths, sort silverware, prep vegetables (safe kitchen aids allow them to do more without injury), sort paperwork (use non-important documents), or organize a junk drawer (filled with safe, but unimportant items).

The goal isn’t to have them do these things correctly, but to help them feel they’re doing something useful.

9. Treat rummaging as an activity

If your older adult is enjoying themselves or if it calms them, there’s no reason to stop them from rummaging – think of it as an engaging activity they really like.

If the behavior is getting on your nerves because they’re rummaging everywhere and making a mess, you could set up a rummage box or dedicated rummage areas.

Filling certain drawers, cabinets, baskets, or boxes with a variety of items that they’re typically drawn to might get them used to rummaging in those specific places.

You could include items like clothing, socks, copies of memorable photos, a fake checkbook, books, greeting cards, or a wallet filled with old receipts, cards that look like credit cards, and fake money – anything they’re interested in.

Things that are related to their hobbies or former career are also great as rummage materials.

You could even create themed boxes like a sewing or knitting drawer, a sports basket, a costume jewelry box, a tool box, a box of music-related items, etc.

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By DailyCaring Editorial Team Image: Jon Merril

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