When it happens
Mostly late mild- to late moderate-stage dementia
Why it happens
Rummaging through drawers or papers is one of many different repetitive behaviors some people show, especially when they're nervous, upset, bored, angry, or feeling vulnerable.
What you can do
Appreciate that this curious symptom is a function of the disease that can't simply be "stopped."
See if you can identify what triggers the behavior. Is your loved one tired? In the company of new people or feeling insecure for some other reason? Is there too much background noise? Are you about to do something (like bathing) that your loved one dislikes? Could he or she be bored or lonesome?
Try not to dwell on the behavior or keep saying, "Don't do that!" Instead focus on the person more generally -- his or her mood and the surrounding circumstances. When in doubt, take the behavior as a sign that your loved one is in need of comfort and reassurance. Provide added attention, give a hug or stroke the hands, find something pleasant to do.
Redirect annoying or problematic rummaging (for example, if important papers are messed up) to a less problematic alternative.
Create a dedicated box or drawer for this behavior. Fill it with the sort of thing your loved one likes to fiddle with: coins or socks to sort, miscellaneous tools and other small objects, papers to organize.
Look for other ways to channel nervous energy into other activities involving the hands: balling yarn, working with hand tools, playing with worry beads, stacking materials like blocks, peeling potatoes or carrots, filling envelopes, applying stamps to envelopes.
Speak reassuringly and use positive body language.