Does Alzheimer's disease cause my mother's rummaging behavior?

9 answers | Last updated: Dec 05, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 72-year-old mother drives me crazy by always rummaging through drawers, boxes, the closet, the refrigerator -- all sorts of places. But she doesn't seem to actually be looking for anything. Is her Alzheimer's disease causing this, and what, if anything, should I do about it?


Expert Answers

Susan Frick is a social worker at the Rush University Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.

Yes, it's probably related to the Alzheimer's. Rummaging behavior is very common. She may be looking for something she can't quite remember, or for something real. She may be trying to organize, or just attempting to stay busy.

First, evaluate her environment for things that could be dangerous, and put them away. For example, put safety locks on the knife drawer in the kitchen.

Next, let her mood guide your response. If she's just casually looking through things, and she seems calm or even seems to be enjoying it, then it's probably a good activity for her (even if it's getting on your nerves a bit). I'd leave it alone, or give her items she enjoys sorting through -- socks, for example, or other clothing. Someone with Alzheimer's often wants to contribute to the household. As long as your mom's behavior isn't hurting her or putting her at risk, it's OK.

However, if she seems upset or anxious while she's rummaging, you have to play detective to figure out what's really going on. As is true for each of us, the behaviors of people with Alzheimer's are their way of communicating. Could she actually be looking for something? Or is she bored and looking for something to do? People with Alzheimer's have trouble structuring their day. Is she left to herself too much? Maybe she could benefit from adult daycare or from a visitor who'll keep her engaged and occupied.

It may be tricky to discover what motivates your mom's behavior, and there may be more than one answer. But if her rummaging seems fretful, it's worth trying to interpret the message behind it.


Community Answers

Red hill rebel answered...

My MIL is a master at the rummaging. She seems to do most of hers doing the evenings and during the night when she is in her room alone. In the evenings, it seems like vague attempts at helping us or trying to look busy. She will come out of her room and say she is looking for something and will know it when she finds it. She spends this time talking to us and all of a sudden, she finds "just what she was looking for" whether it was a piece of chalk, a plastic spoon, or a kleenex." During the nights, she rummages thru her drawers, old boxes of photos, her clothes closet. I have already been thru her room and removed anything that could hurt her like scissors, letter openers, guns, and anything else I just did not feel safe leaving with her. Some of these times, she sits up a lot of the night and looks thru old pictures. Sometimes the next morning, she is in a good mood and has questions and comments about what she 'found'. There are other times that these sessions bring back memories that hurt, bring to face the facts that she has memory problems and she realizes what she is loosing. She can't put into words what she really feels, but every now and then, she makes a very lucid comment that tells me she knows she is not the person she use to be and that something is wrong with her and she doesn't know how to get the memories put back in her head.
I leave her alone during these rummaging times. She has progressed in her deteriorated memories to a time of about 25-30 years ago and I was not even a member of the family. I have little to offer to be able to sit and reminise and these times help her remember. I try and have family and friends that I call to come over for a 'visit' during these times she needs to talk the past. It gives her a break from me and a chance to talk about old times. She needs the stimulation of conversation and remembering, and if this is what it looks like, then that is how it will be. I am here for her. They can't remember, so we, the family, are her legacy.


Persika46 answered...

My mother exhibits this 'rummaging' behavior, usually with her personal belongings so I think it is an effort to verify her sense of self and reassure that she has the little things she needs (like the contents of her purse....her glasses, lipstick, tissues, etc). One day I asked if I could help her find something and she said she was looking for a phone number to call her mother. I gently reminded her that her mother passed away years ago and that led to questions about her father and brother (all deceased long ago too). She seemed fine with the explanation until an hour later when I found her weeping. When I asked what was wrong, she said her entire family was dead and no one had told her. It was as though she had just found out and launched into the grieving process. I tried to reassure her that our section of the family are all still here and that the departed ones loved her very much and wouldn't want her to feel sad that they had to leave. Thankfully, that seemed to satisfy her for the moment. Then I sat down with her and we went through our photo album. Looking at early pictures of her family and on to present day seemed to help her see the progression of time and the passing of these people made more sense. My heart breaks for her.....when her sense of time and chronology is out of sync, I know it makes her feel so adrift and overwhelmed. When we started on this dreadful journey, my first reaction was always to try to make things normal again, to correct things, to put life back on its familiar track. I'm still learning to let go, to accept how things are, and to stop trying to 'fix' it all. By focusing on 'fixing' everything, I was adding to her sense of being overwhelmed and making a bad situation worse for both of us. When things feel like they are getting to be too much, I reflect on how she so willingly put everything aside and tended to her children with such remarkable patience and love. Now the situation is reversed with us caring for our parents.....but I cannot think of a greater privilege in which to participate.


Wowmomma answered...

I think rummaging is part of this disease. My mom rummages through her purse during church to the point that I have to take her purse and tuck it under the pew.She will search through the few tissues, pieces of paper, and her nearly empty wallet over and over and over! If I ask her what she is looking for she always answer, "I am just seeing what is in here."


Wyndie answered...

My mother has moderate dementia and she rummages through things many times and I think it is in an effort to find something to do. When asked what she is looking for, sometimes she has an answer but many times even she doesn't know. She was always busy so it seems that now she is looking for something to do to fill her time. She loves to water the garden and other than the cost of the water she doesn't hurt anything and it makes her happy so we let her do it. It can become frustrating however when she picks up everything she finds laying around and angrily asks, "Can someone please tell me why this _____ is laying here?" I use to jump up and run to put whatever it was away but I became exhausted, never accomplished anything, and I just couldn't deal with it. Now when she asks, I tell her what it is and tell her to go put it away, and tell her where the correct place is. Sometimes this works but sometimes she gets angry that I am not jumping up and doing it myself. I have realized that I cannot run to fix every problem and not every problem HAS to be fixed at this exact moment. It's all a work in progress.


Ca-claire answered...

My Mother had dementia caused by pain (odd, but true). Just before she passed from cancer, she did a lot of searching/rummaging. Luckily, I had already gone through all of her things, and there was nothing she could hurt or be hurt by. It seems that Mom needed to keep her fingers active (she was a knitter all her life until about 3 months before she passed, she couldn't figure out how to do it). Even when she was nearly non-responsive, her fingers kept moving on her blanket/sheet, like she was going through a file card file. I miss her very much. Almost through the year of 'firsts'. Only T-day and Christmas to go....


Gorilla gaurd answered...

My wife, now edging toward the end of the "mid-stage" of AD, does a good bit of rummaging mostly of her personal belongings (clothes, jewelry and papers) and our household effects. She hides things, rearranges them all out of fear that mysterious strangers come into our house and steal her stuff. This troubling symptom about drives me nuts.

So what i am doing is gradually storing or getting rid of things that are no longer relevant or clothes that no longer fit, but it is a long process. She watches me like a hawk, so I cn only do this if she is asleep or in the shower.


Elliza answered...

My mom, who has advanced Alzheimer's has a "rummaging" habit. Hers in now limited to the mail. She is constantly sorting through every piece of paper she can find. She thinks we are keeping things from her. Now I don't even bring in the mail until I have sorted it and brought all the bills, and other mail that needs attention upstairs. She can't do stairs anymore and has a ground floor suite all her own. I leave papers and mail she can go through over and over on the counter now. She will get up and rummage in the middle of the night, convinced she has forgotten to pay a bill, even though she hasn't had a checking account in 3 or 4 years. She looks for her car registration, although she hasn't had a car or driven in 5 years. All this sorting and resorting seems to calm her so now we put "junk" mail on the counter too. She enjoys going through ads for new windows, alarm systems and lawn care specials. Every week I put the whole stack in the recycle bag and we start over. I know I could leave the same stuff there forever and she wouldn't know the difference, but it just seems right to me to try and make her happy.


A fellow caregiver answered...

This crept in gradually, from my perspective with my mother in the kitchen...at one point I painstakingly organized all the plastic containers with their matching lids on top, rubber-banded them together, and put them to the back far reaches, out of the way, leaving her stuff (we live together) up front. But it is so constantly rearranged that I have given up to the point of throwing things in without even looking. She has taken everything apart And she puts food away without matching...i.e. it is a lid that is too big or to small she rests on top of a bottom. I have considered, sometimes in frustration, bagging it all up and putting it in the attic....and replacing it with a graduated set of 5 nesting containers with colored lids. (Clear containers seem to trigger the brain to realized what's inside). I wonder, doing that, if that will take away the ability to rummage...but it still leaves plenty of pots and pans etc. It is incredibly agitating to me....when I go to prepare food...because it feels like a scavenger hunt to find the right utensil or pan...