Repetitive behaviours

Understand why a person living with dementia may be repeating the same action, again and again, and learn how to manage this behaviour.

Older man playing guitar as younger man looks on, both smiling


Repetition can be verbal (also referred to as "perseverating", where the person may repeat the same question) or can be physical (repetitive movements like rubbing hands together again and again).

Unfortunately, people who perseverate are sometimes characterized as “attention seekers.” In truth, the person has little insight or control over this.

Possible causes

  • Feelings of insecurity or loss
  • Loneliness
  • Separation from a loved one
  • Under- or over-stimulation
  • Inability to express a need (e.g. someone fidgeting with clothes may need to go to the bathroom)

Tips and strategies

  • Distract with activities the person enjoys, like a walk or snacking
  • Respond to the emotion behind the person's question
  • Give the person something to occupy their hands.
  • If the person is in a long-term care home, consult with staff to see if you can fit the repetitive action into household chores (e.g. dusting the same area over and over again).
  • Speak calmly and answer the question like the first time.

Example #1

Lily continually asks why her mother hasn't visited, even though she passed away many years ago.


  • Say, “Don’t you remember? Your mother died 25 years ago. You know better than that. Your mother would be 113 if she were still alive!” Lily may respond as if she were hearing it for the first time, every time, and grieve.


  • Respond to the emotion behind the question. Is Lily feeling insecure?
  • Show family photos or tell stories, which often restore a sense of intimacy and feelings of warmth in place of the missing person.

Example #2

Adam taps his fingers on the arm of his wheechair…tap, tap, tap… from morning until bed.


  • Ask him to stop repeatedly
  • Restrain his hands


  • Ask yourself, Who does the behaviour bother? If it isn’t bothering anyone else, do nothing.
  • Turn the behaviour into an activity (e.g. give him a cloth and ask for help with dusting)
  • Play music and get his tapping match the beat


Shifting focus: Guide to understanding dementia behaviour

This booklet is meant to help family members, friends and caregivers of people with dementia understand behaviours and actions.

It provides information about the following:

  • Brain and dementia
  • Recognizing and understanding the person’s actions and behaviours
  • Supportive strategies

Download the booklet.