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Obsessive compulsive behaviours

Dementia advice

Some people living with dementia can begin to show obsessive compulsive or repetitive behaviours. These can include a discomfort about things being out of order or a new ritualistic habit, such as repeatedly washing their hands. 

For most people, these behaviours are still a little-known sign of dementia, with only 23% of people associating obsessive tendencies as a symptom of dementia. Hear from families and Care UK dementia experts about how to navigate obsessive tendencies in dementia in the video below. 

The Big Dementia Conversation: Obsessive compulsive behaviours

What are obsessive compulsive or repetitive behaviours in dementia? 

People living with dementia can present repetitive behaviours, such as carrying out the same activity or asking the same questions over and overThey may also become obsessed with making their space clean and tidy. These are all signs of obsessive compulsive behaviour in dementia. 

What causes repetition and obsessive tendencies in people living with dementia? 

Every person experiences dementia differently, and these changes in behaviour can stem from the symptoms of dementia or an individual’s life experiences.  

A few reasons behind repetitive behaviour in dementia, include: 

  • Memory problems – Your loved one might not remember what they have already said or the answer to a question they asked. They may keep checking their handbag or wallet is with them or that they have food in the kitchen.
  • Feeling confused or anxious – Your loved one could be seeking comfort or reassurance rather than a factual answer. If they’re performing a repetitive action, it may give them comfort. 
  • Reliving a past job or hobby – Some actions mimic an activity a person would have carried out in their younger years, such as wiping down tables if they worked in a café. 

There is sometimes comfort in doing things over and over again and that sense of repetitive action, and we do see it a lot with people living with dementia.

Suzanne MumfordCare UK's Head of Nursing, Care and Dementia

How to manage obsessive or repetitive behaviours in dementia 

At Care UK, we encourage repetitive actions rather than trying to stop them if they aren’t causing any harm. This is because they can provide the person with a sense of comfort and security.  

Knowing a person’s life history is important, as they may carry out repetitive behaviours that would have been usual in past career or routineWhen we get to know individuals on a personal level, we can deliver person-centred care and engage residents with meaningful activities that keep their hands busy. For examplefor someone who is running their hand over a table repeatedly, we might give them a cloth and ask them if they would like to help with the dusting. 

If your loved one is repeating questions or actions, try to think about the reason behind their behaviour. Identifying triggers can help you understand if a certain environment, person or time of day is prompting their questions or concerns. 

If they frequently ask about the time or date, give them a clock or calendar to display in a prominent locationIf they seem anxious, try distracting them by engaging them in a meaningful activity, such as listening to music or looking through photos and reminiscing. 

How to communicate with someone living with dementia 

Communicating effectively with someone who is living with dementia can be a challenge, but try to stay calm and patient, and repeat an answer if you need toDon’t argue, and try to meet your loved one in their reality. 

The Big Dementia Conversation 

We want to get the nation talking about dementia and some of the most difficult topics associated with the condition. Explore more articles in our online advice hub to take a closer look at the less-talked-about symptoms of dementia and how to navigate them. You can also discover more advice and support on our dementia help & advice page.