Updated: Sep 16, 2022
What can you do if a person with dementia keeps repeating themselves?
Instead of answering over and over until we are exhausted and angry, we can explore and try to understand what is hidden behind the repeated question or story.
When I first began using hand reflexology to help people with dementia, I noticed that during the session people would often repeat the same story. I was curious as to why this particular story was important to them. I would write down the story to see if after receiving several sessions of hand reflexology the story would change or stop. In some cases the person would become more relaxed and not repeat the story as much.
It was only after I learned Validation, a way of communicating with people who have dementia, that I was able to look at the repeated story as a clue to understanding the person better.
Answer the Question with a Question
One of my favorite TV programs is the improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway? One of the improv skits they do on the show is to only answer a question with another question. It’s a difficult task and this skit leads to some very funny moments.
Answering a question with another question is what we need to try to do if someone is constantly asking the same question. It’s not easy because we are so used to answering a question, but by asking a question we can bring the conversation back to the person we are talking to.
What time is it?
Of course our normal reaction is to tell the person what time it is - most probably over and over all day. But if we look at this question more carefully, we can try to explore what’s the reason behind this question. Are they expecting something or someone? Are they worried they may miss something?
We can ask our own question using the Validation Technique of asking Open Questions - who, what, where, when, how (not why) - to try to understand the reason for this question.
What/who are you waiting for?
Where do you need to go?
Perhaps they are expecting someone to visit at a certain time and we can allow them to talk about this person. We can reminisce about this same person and show photos to allow the person to talk even more. This may reduce their urgency to keep asking what time it is.
Someone else may be worried about getting somewhere on time, perhaps to an appointment. Explore where the person may need to go. It could be somewhere in the present, like a doctor’s appointment or it could be something in the past like going home.
On the other hand, the person may be feeling they are slowly losing control over themselves and are trying hard to hold on to reality by knowing what time it is. We can help this person feel more in control of their life by telling them the time during the day and giving them a choice of what they want to do. We can help them be more involved in their schedule and thus feel more in control.
What’s Behind the Repeated Story
If a person keeps repeating the same story, this may be a sign of something that is very important for them. They may have some unfinished business that they have not dealt with yet or they may be telling the story to fulfil a need.
Explore the story more by asking open questions and letting the person explain in more details. If you sense the unfulfilled need (ie need to feel useful, need to feel loved, need to be appreciated) you can also try to help them fulfill this need.
Last year I was sitting at the table with a group of people in the memory wing at a Senior Day Center. One man in his eighties, kept repeating the same story about how he had a successful business, but they asked him to come back to serve in the Army. The other people at the table were getting irritated that he kept repeating the same story over and over.
Can you believe it? I had my own successful business
and they asked me to leave it all and go back to serve in the Army
I put on my “investigator” hat and began asking open questions to try to discover why this story was so important to him.
I first asked about his business. What he did, what it was like in the city where he had his business, how successful it was. He answered, but five minutes later he repeated the same story.
I tried again and this time asked this man about his decision to go back to the Army. How difficult was it. What happened to his business. If he was asked again, would he have returned to the Army. We discussed all of this, but within a few minutes he again repeated the story.
The next time I considered why the Army would want this person back and why it was important for this man to share this story. I told him “You must have been a very important person if the Army asked you to re-enlist. I want to thank you for defending us and the country.” He beamed a big smile and guess what - he stopped repeating the story. This former officer needed his accomplishments to be acknowledged. He needed others to know his worth. That was the reason he kept repeating his story.
We don’t always find the reason behind the stories or questions, but if we continue to ask questions and explore, we might be able to understand and find what is hidden behind these repeated stories and questions. Please let me know if there are topics you would like to see in a blog post. You can write a comment below.
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