March 7, 2024

Coping with Repetition

As a caregiver for a person with dementia, you may have found that the person you care for repeats questions, stories and ideas.…

… again, and again. And again.

Brain changes can make it hard for a person to remember details about upcoming events. They might forget they already shared a story from their past, or an idea.

If repetitive questions have become an issue, here are some ideas about how you might better support yourself and the person you care for.

Consider why they are asking. Have they simply forgotten they’d asked, or is there something else going on?

Pay attention to the emotion behind the repeated question. If someone is wringing their hands, raising their voice or appearing otherwise agitated — don’t take it personally. Just  get curious. What is it that they really want or need in this moment?

If they repeat a question like, “When are we eating lunch?” They might actually just be hungry right now. So telling them that you’re going to eat at noon, or, you’re going to start getting lunch ready in 10 minutes, might not address the real issue.

Instead, maybe follow up with a question. “Are you hungry now? Did you need to eat something sooner?”

If they’re repeatedly asking, “What time are the neighbors going to be here?” they could mean, “I am SO excited that the neighbors are coming because I LOVE them!” But they could also mean, “I am not  comfortable around people anymore and it’s making me very nervous that they’re coming here.”

Again, you could answer their question and say, “they're going to be here at 5:00.” But you might want to be curious about why they keep asking and follow up.  “Are you looking forward to the neighbors being here?”

Avoid Arguments and be mindful of your response

It will be a lot easier on you both if you’re able to respond with patience. Take two deep breaths, or maybe count to five before you respond.

Responding with exasperation is only going to make things worse. Phrases like, “I just told you that,” “Don’t you remember??”  or “You just asked me that!” - that’s only going to make the person feel worse. Now, in addition to struggling with their memory, they’ve made you angry with them! And they do rely on you, whether they admit that to themselves or not.

If the person doesn’t believe that they have memory issues, your pointing out that they’re repeating themselves again and again might make them question whether you’re lying to them, and that can make matters far worse.

Repetition could indicate that the person is just bored. Is there an activity they might do which could break the loop? For instance, if they’re repeatedly asking about lunch, maybe they could help with some aspect of lunch preparation. Maybe they could pick flowers to go on the table or pour water into the glasses, or fold napkins. Maybe they could tear the salad leaves.

Maybe they’re repeating themselves because they’re feeling lonely and want to connect with you. If you don’t have time to sit and engage with them at that very moment, try showing them one of Zinnia’s Friendly Greeting videos. These are based on the principles of Simulated Presence Therapy and they include a friendly person sporadically coming on screen to greet the person in positive and caring ways.

Another way to deal with repetitive questions is to use memory aids.

Help them Help Themselves

With a little preparation, you might be able to pre-empt questions.

Put a whiteboard in a central place and fill it with all of the day's activities written in large, easy-to-read print. Include a line that says: TODAY IS, followed by the date and the day of the week. Hang a large, easy-to-read clock and a calendar next to the white board.

When the person asks about an upcoming appointment or event, you can gently encourage them to go look at the whiteboard.

Some people do well with a piece of paper that they carry in their purse or pocket that lists the day’s activities.

Or, if there’s a specific question they keep asking and they are still able to read, you could write down the question and the answer. When they ask again, just suggest they look at the piece of  paper.

Consider whether some things should be left off the calendar

At times you might want to avoid telling the person about an upcoming activity until it’s time to get ready for it. This is a good strategy for those people who tend to spend the day anticipating an upcoming activity, and repeatedly asking about it. It could also avoid creating anxiety for them.  

If the appointment is something that they're not going to be pleased about, consider leading with a more enjoyable event, and reveal the necessary one only when it’s actually time to go do it.

For instance, if they don’t like going to the dentist, but they love going for coffee, focus the day’s preparations on going out for coffee. Afterwards, when they’re in a good mood, let them know that you’ll be stopping by the dentist on the way home.

If you are accused of not having prepared them – take the blame. “You’re right. I should have told you. Can you please forgive me? I didn’t want you to worry.” Or it might work better to casually say that you forgot and get them focused on the next task.
Avoid Visual Reminders

That birthday cake in the refrigerator and the   gift on the table is going to cue Dad that there’s a party happening. But since he can’t remember when, or whose birthday it is, or what  his role in it will be, he could start feeling anxious and, you guessed it, start asking a lot of questions.

It might be simpler to keep those visual clues out of sight, and out of mind.

Stay calm, and be patient - with both of you

If you get to a point where you feel overwhelmed by repetitive questions and can’t keep from being frustrated and snapping at the person who is asking them, that’s a sign that you need a bit more support.

Please don’t judge yourself for this - we all need a little help sometimes. Some amount of frustration is inevitable when dealing with this scenario.

Please look for ways to give yourself a break and find support when you need it.

Caregiving is challenging work and it is not meant to be done alone. A support group is a brilliant, safe place to share feelings of frustration. It can help you feel less alone, and feel heard, and it can provide really helpful tips about what other people do to cope with this situation.

Here at Zinnia we honor you, and we thank you for what you do, and for the care you provide. Take good care!

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