My mother keeps picking at her skin until it bleeds!

8 answers | Last updated: Oct 11, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother will be 82 July 12. She has dementia, but no one has said what type. She picks her stomach until she gets sores. When they get a scab, she picks the scabs because she says they hurt, so they never heal and go away. Her doctors know this and don't do anything about it except to sometimes look at them to be sure she doesn't have an infection. She does this picking mostly while on the toilet or when she wakes during the night - or times when she thinks no one will catch her.


Expert Answers

Joanne Koenig Coste is a nationally recognized expert on Alzheimer's care and an outspoken advocate for patient and family care. She is the author of Learning to Speak Alzheimer's. Also, she currently is in private practice as an Alzheimer's family therapist. Ms. Koenig Coste also serves as President of Alzheimer Consulting Associates, implementing state-of-the-art Alzheimer care throughout the United States.

This must be devastating for you as a caregiver to watch your Mom repeatedly performing an act that can potentially become a grave medical problem. It is difficult enough to deal with Alzheimer's without the addition of this ongoing habit. I'm sure it is also less than pleasing to be viewing this ritual and its bloody results day after day. It does sound like you have done all the right things in seeking your physician's help and in attempting to cover her hands to prevent the dreaded scratching. In the hundreds of Alzheimer's disease folks I've seen in the past 3 decades, I must admit to only knowing a few who have manifested this same seemingly harmful need to scratch at areas that have been tested and show no underlying skin irritation or allergy which would be the first consideration. I have also seen several others with as dementia-related psychiatric illness. I'm sure your physician has already checked this possibility as the trigger for the picking. Having ruled out medical, psychiatric, or dermatologic causes, I would suggest you try a different kind of clothing that has worked well for the other patients to whom I previously referred. It is a one piece garment that fastens in the back and leaves the person's skin totally covered; because of the back closure your Mom would not be able to remove it. I would also suggest a "busy apron" which is, exactly as it sounds, an apron that is worn over the back-fastening garment and has items attached that keep the person wearing it busy interacting with various buttons, textures, zippers etc. Not only does it provide some healing time but it may hopefully redirect her focus onto something other than her skin. Try "The Alzheimer Store" online to find the articles I mentioned or for assistance in finding a place near you that has them in stock. If you or a friend are handy with a needle and thread, do buy some interesting objects and sew them onto a cobbler-style apron to create your own version of a busy-apron. Be sure to take care of yourself!

Community Answers

Bonez answered...

first cut her nails as short as you can. then try to find a solution but it will be like many things there isnt a solution, just an ongoing problem.

Wrs answered...

My mother has this problem. She will dig at her face, hands and arms. I have found that if I put long sleeves and gloves on she stops. I put them all day (24 hrs) at first. then only at night after all is healed. She would pull them off so I started to tape them on around the wrist, being careful to not tape on the skin - skin tears - just the glove or too tight as not to stop the flow of blood. (use white breathable knit or thicker gloves as to take the sense of touching something to pick away. $1.99 at target and other places. I also pick out the seam on the fold on the wrist as to not cause undo pressure in that area.) So you will also need to give the hands plenty of glove off time to give light and air time to keep skin fungus from developing. Just be vigilant.

I now only put them on at night because all have healed and she likes to pick at night most. Can't be that watchful when sleeping.

She seems to like putting them on as I tell her it's to keep her hands warm and toastie.

Good luck WRS

Franip answered...

My Mom would pick at herself also. I kept her nails very short and used a little neosporin on a bandage. I found that she was not able to remove Nexcare Waterproof bandages by 3M. They are ultra-thin and clear. I hope this helps.

Jennyb answered...

This problem is, unfortunately, fairly common, although picking at the stomach is a little unusual. I wonder if the problem might not lie deeper than the skin -- some sort of gastrointestinal disorder, for example.

Sometimes, Alzheimer's patients can develop obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it's possible that an SSRI might help.

There are also many suggestions about other factors that could cause the scratching/picking, and how to deal with them, at:

A fellow caregiver answered...

Both my husband & I have tried everything for his 94 yr old Mother who lives with us. We have bought cotton gloves which when we leave the room she will take off her scratching hand. My husband is up for transplant...we can't have open sores on her face in a hospital setting. She has been with us for 2 1/2 years...non stop. I am younger than my husband but we do include her in every activity. She loves kids but I can tell you if it was my child and a stranger, i would never let her next to them with sores. Help with advice.

Kenj answered...

Hi there, I'd like to suggest acrylic (fake) nails. My mom has early onset Alzheimer's, and even in her younger years she "picked" at everything. Now that she has Alz the problem has compounded. She used to get fake nails pre-Alz to help herself break her bad habit, so I took her to get her nails done recently and it worked! The acrylic nails are too thick to be effective at picking anything off your skin. It is difficult to actually make it through the nail appointment, so make sure you have someone who can help the nail technician.

T.l. smith answered...

Not really an answer, couldn't figure out how to enter problem/question. My mom is 86 & has mild to moderate dementia. She picks at her skin on her arms & sometimes legs, until it bleeds. Has been going on for sometime now & it has caused significant scarring, but she won't stop. We have tried keeping sleeves on, wrapping with Coban (gentle self adhesive wrap), keeping nails short & gel manicured, & last resort-Zoloft. Dr. won't prescribe anti anxiety medication. She removes the wraps or sleeves. If she can't do it with her nails, she hunts until she finds a needle or sissors, or anything with which to scrape. We have removed/hidden needles & sissors, but somehow, she manages to find some at times. More recently, she has resorted to using the needle part of jewelry. We removed all of those, but then she went through her clothes & found some pins she used to wear that we had missed. The other day when she was at my sister's home, she went through her desk & found a thumb tack. It's even more frustrating because she's aware that she shouldn't be doing it & tries to hide it & deny it when we catch her. She insists there's a " bump" present & if she doesn't pick it out, it becomes a sore. There's nothing there, until she picks it until it's a raw, open, bleeding sore, but she won't believe me when I look at it & feel it & tell her there is no "bump", or anything there. We try to always have someone with her, (usually me, or my sister), but there are household chores, meals to prepare, etc. & I can't always be in the same room watching her. My sister, especially is at the end of her rope. She recently told me she was going to tell mom that if she didn't stop, we were going to put her in a nursing home & they would tie her hands down. I'm not going to let that happen & told her not to say that to mom. She told me tonight that she "blew up at her" & felt like she wanted to shake her or hit her & had to leave the room so she wouldn't do such a thing. I'm a bit more patient than her in general, but still find it very frustrating & sometimes get crabby with her. Have never felt the urge to inflict physical abuse though. I'm really worried about the situation & feel like she won't be able to spend much time at my sister's anymore. Any advise or thoughts would be greatly appreciated.