A sign of dementia is Rummaging – why does it happen and how do I cope with it?

a sign of dementia is rummaging

A Sign of Dementia: Rummaging

It is not uncommon to see someone living with dementia repeatedly rummaging through drawers and cupboards, often seemingly rearranging the contents, or emptying them out and then putting the contents back; they might then move to a different drawer or cupboard, and start the whole process again.

This behavior is known as rummaging, and it is something that does sometimes manifest itself as Alzheimer’s Disease, or other forms of dementia develop.

It is important for a caregiver to recognize rummaging as a sign of dementia, and to understand what it is and have a strategy to cope with it when it occurs. Otherwise, rummaging is an activity that can be extremely frustrating to watch because, frankly, it can create a real mess in a tidy room! In some cases, entire drawers may be emptied out, with the contents either strewn around the room, or perhaps hidden in different places. This can be challenging at the end of what may have already been a stressful day.

Why does it happen?

Rummaging may manifest itself as an expression of anxiety on the part of the person living with dementia; it may be that they are anxiously looking for a specific item that they believe they had placed in that drawer. If they can’t find it, they might jump to the conclusion that it has been stolen.

However, rummaging may also manifest itself as an enjoyable activity, where someone is simply looking through familiar items that bring comfort. It’s not uncommon for someone living with dementia to feel happier if they are surrounded by, or close to things that bring them comfort. So this sign of dementia can sometimes lead them to remove items from one location in order to hide them, or even hoard them somewhere else.

Equally, rummaging may be a manifestation of simple boredom; having a good “sort out” can be a way of finding something to do.

Rummaging is basically a coping mechanism — a way for the person living with dementia to cope with disorientation, or insecurity that is caused by the condition they are living with.

How do I cope with rummaging?

The first step is to take a breath and remember that it is the dementia that is causing the person you are caring for to rummage. It is absolutely not the case that they are deliberately doing this to bother you and add to your already heavy workload. Understanding and remembering this will help you to respond without arguments, which will avoid conflicts. Remember: rummaging is a symptom and sign of dementia. This in turn will lower the stress level for you both.

While the first instinct, particularly for someone with an orderly, tidy mindset, might be to put a stop to the rummaging. It is important to take a moment and try to understand why it is happening, and perhaps take steps instead to “manage” it rather than stop it. Particularly if, as mentioned above, when it is an activity that seems to be bringing comfort, or alleviating boredom for the person doing the rummaging.

Trying to stop the rummaging may increase levels of paranoia or agitation, raising stress levels and the potential for conflict. This is far less likely to happen if the rummaging is managed, rather than prohibited.

How to manage the rummaging activity:

  • Remove from all accessible drawers and cupboards any potentially harmful items. Make sure, for example, that things such as scissors, knives or needles have all been removed and stored somewhere that is either locked, or inaccessible. Remember that cleaning fluids may be confused with simple beverages and keep them somewhere safe.
  • If the rummaging activity does appear to be based on anxiety, try to find out what is driving that anxiety. Are they looking for a specific item which they believe might be in that drawer but does seem to have been misplaced? Some caregivers in this situation found a replacement item that looks the same or similar, which has solved the anxiety that had caused the rummaging.
  • Rummaging may extend from a drawer or cupboard to a refrigerator, so keep an eye on food items that may be past their sell-by date, or raw meats. Either remove them or try to make them inaccessible.
  • Take steps to remove any valuable or important items – cash, jewelry, keys, passports or credit cards and keep them somewhere inaccessible.
  • Consider creating a Rummaging Box, or Drawer, that is filled with familiar items, or items that you know may trigger happy memories, such as family photographs, or items that are familiar and special, such as a purse, clothes, or scarf or other mementos. Going though these things can provide a positive experience and a connection to good memories, which can increase feelings of comfort or security.
  • Keep trash cans out of sight, if possible, as someone rummaging may not be able to discern the difference between them and a drawer or cupboard. It is also a good idea to check the contents of the trash can before disposal, to make sure that no items have been hidden or placed in there that should not be thrown away.
  • Rummaging can take place anywhere in the house so try to keep restricted access to certain rooms.

In summary, rummaging is a sign of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  A patient and well thought out approach to rummaging can address its challenges and even turn it into a worthwhile and fulfilling activity.

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