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Repetitive Behavior

Living With Alzheimer's >> Behavior Basics | 04.24.15

Repetitive behavior: dealing with cycles of sameness

Part of the caregiver experience may involve responding to repeated bouts of the same activity. This might take the form of a person asking the same question repeatedly or simply saying a word or phrase again and again.

The practice can also occur with repeated movements, sometimes associated with a person’s former occupation. A painter, for instance, might repeatedly move an invisible brush or roller. A former secretary might mime the process of typing. Other repetitive motions might take the form of endless rocking or swaying back and forth. In the presence of the condition known as nocturnal rhythmic movement disorder, a person in bed will repeatedly shake their head when going to sleep.

Regardless of the type of repetitive behavior, witnessing these actions can be disturbing to family and friends if they are not prepared.

Some of the most common repetitive behaviors include:

  • Repeatedly asking the same questions, such as “What’s your name?” and “Can I go home?”
  • Repetition of what others are saying
  • Following caregivers everywhere (see “Shadowing”)
  • Repeatedly hoarding the same objects
  • Compulsive routines for everyday tasks or ritualistic activities
  • Repeatedly moving chairs and furniture around the room
  • Nonstop drumming on tabletop with fingers, hands or other objects
  • Repeatedly walking the same circuit through the house or the room
  • Oral fixation involving putting objects into the mouth repeatedly
  • Repeated short outbursts such as “Hello!”, “Mama!” or other exclamations

How should you respond?

The repetitive behavior is beyond the control of the person with dementia. That makes criticism nonproductive and could even make the situation worse by adding to the person’s confusion. Be aware of the person’s emotional state; it could provide a clue to why the behavior is happening. Sometimes repetitive behaviors provide a way for the person to calm themselves in a stressful environment.

You might be able to reduce the person’s anxiety with something as simple as a few calm words or a hug. Taking the person into a different room or changing the environment in other ways could also help interrupt the repetitive behavior. Whatever the case, try not to be annoyed. The person is simply expressing themselves in the only way they know how.

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