What should I do when my mother with dementia is looking for something she doesn't even own?

3 answers | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
Phylburral asked...

My mother who has dementia, gets worked up and starts looking for things she don't have/ Like the other night she kept looking through her blankets for a blue raincoat because her watch was in it, she has never had a raincoat that I remember and the last watch she had was about 40 years ago and she could not wear it..so what do we do??

Expert Answers

Brenda Avadian, brings knowledge, hope, and joy to family caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer's and dementia. She cared for her father with Alzheimer's and helps families one-on-one and in groups. She is the author of eight books, including the pioneering memoir "Where's my shoes?" My Father's Walk through Alzheimer's and the Finding the JOY in Alzheimer's series. She presents vivid, compelling, and funny keynotes to both professional and family caregiving audiences.

Oftentimes, people with dementia will vividly recall something from years ago. Such may be the case with your mother's raincoat and watch.

Also, as the damage of dementia marches on and wrecks havoc on your mother's memory, she may believe she has something (maybe something she saw on television or while paging through magazine) and have an urgent need to find it.

Regardless of the reality as you see it, searching for these items is your mother's reality.

Given what you've shared, you may want to consider either of two options"”

One, deflect her concern by inviting her to share or by sharing your own memories of the lost (or a related) item.

For example, ask her what she's looking for and when she tells you, help her to look while inviting her to share memories of that blue raincoat or what she liked best about her watch. Or share you own memories of the first watch you wore. "Mom, I'll help you find your watch because I know how important this is to you. I remember my first watch..." This approach may deflect her concern knowing you're helping her as you both reminisce about these or related items.

Two, a more difficult option for caregivers is to engage in therapeutic lying.

Depending on your and your mother's habits, you might say something like: "Mom, you may have forgotten because now I realize how long ago it was, but you agreed to let me take it to the cleaners before the rainy season started. I'm sorry; I keep forgetting it at home."


"Mom, I'm sorry you think it is here. You let me borrow it after it started raining when I visited you earlier. Besides, I like your raincoat so much I hoped I could keep it."

Depending on her sense of humor, you can smile sheepishly with a naughty child wink.

As for Mom's watch: Didn't Mom need a new battery or a new watchband?

The idea with these two approaches is to comfort her by assuring her you will help her, that you have favorable memories of these (or related items), or that her items are safe in your (or even another family member's) possession. This way, you affirm her view of reality. If her memory on specific items is short term, you can assure her you'll return the items--a good excuse to visit her sooner.

Oftentimes, once our loved ones know their possessions are safe, they will let go of their concerns and move onto something else. But keep these two options in mind as you help her achieve peace of mind.

Community Answers

Frena answered...

Hey Brenda, love your work, even though i'm going to only half-agree with you here!

i'm absolutely with you on assuming that Mom is reliving something from her past. I wish family members more often would really REALLY try to understand how memory works in people with dementia. Since short-term memory becomes very wounded by the progress of this condition but longterm memory normally stays pretty intact (variable but often), people move into the past to live. This is NOT delusion, this is what happens when you don't even remember that you forget. It means that what you do remember is assumed to be the norm. so if you remember 1936 vividly, that's where you live.

so it's always useful to assume that Mom or Dad or spouse is working with a vivid past memory when they're looking or walking or telling you something is going on. they are NOT crazy.

so, i applaud the redirection thing that Brenda suggests. since attention span is usually fairly brief in dementia, redirection works well when it does NOT involve complicated explanations (which the person with dementia can't remember or follow -- thereby adding to their agitation). redirect as in: "Let's eat (have coffee, get the shopping, blah blah blah), then we'll have a really good look for that," may work well.

Do NOT argue about the facts with your Mom. Instead, ask yourself what the deep meaning of the current obsession is. As in, how3 does she really feel that everything valuable is being lost or stolen from her by her disease? Comfort THAT feeling, instead of getting as obsessed as she is. Someone has to be the grownup -- that would be you.

I'm totally not in agreement with "therapeutic lying." Firstly, because it's still lying. Secondly because people with dementia have very good intuitive reading of others. You might not realize they know when you're angry, lying, and so on -- but they do. And that makes them feel even less secure. i dont believe in messing with their already shaky reality.

i do, however, believe in evasion, persuasion, bribery, redirection and looking blank. As in, "Blue coat? Gosh, no idea (truthful). I'm so sorry. I certainly haven't seen anything like that (truthful). I really need to eat, (get the shopping, go to the bathroom, make a phone call) first. Then let's see what we can find."

With luck, and kind support (instead of angry resentment caused by our own caregiver confusion, sense of helplessness, fear and overwhelm), we may see the person becoming redirected to another activity.

Then an action plan to emotionally support our person may help a lot. Up the kindness and lovingness, raise the physical reassurance with affectionate touching, patting, stroking, hugging, less arguing (which only confuses them further) will help.

They need us standing up beside them in love and support (which I believe in what Brenda's therapeutic lying suggestion is intended to do -- but i think it doesn't because i think they know when we tell lies, like our mother's used to know....). So often, when we get tired and overwhelmed, we get oppositional. So do they. Hence the famous irrational dementia standoff --- arggghhhh.

Blessings to us all caregivers.

Gadjett answered...

try to get her on another subject - then hopefully she will forget about the raincoat & watch! Works with my mother~~~ i.e., one minute she isn't hungry for lunch - I come back in 5 minutes, and she says, "I'm always hungry!"