Repetitive behaviours

What are repetitive behaviours?

Repetitive behaviours can include repeating a sound, a word, a question or an action (for example, tapping fingers). Understanding the reasons behind specific behaviours can help caregivers cope.

Possible causes of repetitive behaviours

  • Anxiety or pain can sometimes result in repetitive behaviours.
  • Possible side effects of medications (particularly when the person is repeating a physical movement).
  • Inability to express needs such as hunger or having to use the bathroom.
  • Trying to express an emotion, such as fear or anger.
  • Separation from a loved one (for example, a person with dementia may ask repeatedly, “where is my husband?”).
  • Misinterpretation of one’s surrounding (sounds, for example), which can cause anxiety.
  • Due to memory loss associated with dementia, a person may not be aware that they are repeating themselves. 
  • Boredom or under-stimulation.
  • A stressful environment or over-stimulation.

Coping strategies

  • Determine if the behaviour needs to be changed. If it’s not causing any harm, it is possible for you to ignore it. However, remember to ignore the behaviour and not the person. 
  • Listen carefully to the person with dementia, make eye contact with them and try to show them that you are concerned about their needs. 
  • Do not remind the person with dementia that they have already asked the question. 
  • Use touch to communicate instead of words. 
  • Use memory aids (write notes, make signs, use large clocks and calendars) to help orient the person.
  • Keep routines consistent. 
  • Avoid getting angry, be patient; it may be difficult to do, but keep in mind that the person is not trying to annoy you on purpose, it is a result of the disease.
  • Distract or redirect the person with another activity. 
  • Reassure the person with dementia. You can reassure them by addressing their feelings rather than their questions or actions. 
  • Look for patterns in the behaviour (take note of the time of day, event, or people who trigger the behaviour). Identify the pattern, then remove the trigger. 
  • Modify the environment based on the trigger (once you know what causes the behaviour, for example a television show). 
  • Check with the person's doctor in case medications are causing repetitive behaviours.
  • Have person with dementia do activities that require repetitive movements (walking, dusting, sanding, folding).
  • Keep instructions short and simple, speak in a calm and reassuring voice. 
  • Playing music may have a calming effect.

Additional resources

Last Updated: 09/20/2019