Aug 29, 2011

What Are Dementia Patients Looking For?

Having a place to rummage, can help the person to “do things”, which we as humans are programmed to do – but in a manner that is successful, safe, and manageable.

By Monica Heltemes

What Are Dementia Patients Looking For?
Persons with Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia, may spend time looking for things, rummaging through drawers, boxes, papers, etc.

This is a part of the disease process, especially as it progresses.

Persons become more “hands-on” as they lose the ability to figure things out by looking. Often times, caregivers will wonder what the person is looking for or may get frustrated with the mess it can make.

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There may be many reasons to explain rummaging.

First, the person may start looking for something, but then forget what it is, and continue looking, hoping to find “it”. Second, they may be thinking in a different timeframe in their life and are looking for something that fits that former time of life. For instance, it might be an accountant looking for his “books”.

Another possibility is that the person may be restless and bored and just looking for something to do, a way to keep the hands busy.

He or she may need more structured tasks or activities to be set-up, started, and monitored, in order to re-direct that energy. Last, the person may be focused on making order of things, such as lining up knick-knacks on a shelf.

Rummaging has the potential to become unsafe, if not monitored. Remove or lock-up all items that could be dangerous, such as chemicals, power tools, knives. Keep important papers, bills, etc. in safe areas, where the person does not rummage, to avoid having them get lost.

Often times the person develops a hiding place or two, where things end up. Find those places and monitor them. It may be a drawer, pillowcase, or shirt pocket. Also, monitor trash cans to ensure things are not accidently thrown away. You might keep trash cans hidden from plain view.

Sometimes, the rummaging may be a sign of an attempt to communicate something.

For instance, the woman who is looking for the lunch box she used to hand her husband every morning. She might become more anxious, as she unsuccessfully looks for it. Try to deduce what the person might be looking for and develop strategies you can use to manage them.

Setting up areas that the person can freely rummage through can be very helpful.

It may be a drawer of clothes or of greeting cards and envelopes. It could be a basket of clothes, tackle box of bobbers and lures, or a jewelry box (monitoring for safety, as needed). Having a place to rummage, can help the person to “do things”, which we as humans are programmed to do – but in a manner that is successful, safe, and manageable.


Home Safety for Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease: Rummaging/Hiding Things. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved from

What Are Dementia Patients Looking For?
Monica Heltemes is a practicing occupational therapist and owner of MindStart™. MindStart designs hobby-style items, such as games and puzzles, specifically for persons with memory loss. They keep persons with dementia active, while giving support to caregivers, and are quick and easy to use. Visit MindStart (Activities for Persons with Memory Loss) to learn more.

More Insight and Advice for Caregivers

Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room