9 Ways to Manage Dementia Rummaging Behavior

dementia rummaging behavior

Dementia can cause seniors to rummage through belongings

When seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease won’t stop rummaging through their things, it can be disruptive, frustrating, and make a mess.

Your older adult may repeatedly dig through drawers and cabinets or search rooms over and over again.

They might take items from one place, hide them all over the house, and then get upset when they can’t find those things. Or, they might repeatedly re-organize things.

As disruptive or annoying as this can be, the important thing to remember is that the dementia is causing the behavior. Your older adult isn’t doing it on purpose to bother you or create more work.

Understanding what’s causing this behavior helps you respond without causing arguments. That minimizes conflicts, which makes life easier and less stressful for both of you.

We explain what causes dementia rummaging behavior and share 9 ways to help you manage it – with plenty of ideas and examples.




What causes dementia rummaging behavior?

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias cause problems with memory and thinking. This can lead to repetitive or challenging behaviors.

Rummaging is a coping mechanism for the disorientation that dementia causes.

The person with dementia is usually trying to reassure themselves that familiar items are still there or are trying to fulfill a need, like eating when hungry or doing something useful.

Attempting to get someone to stop rummaging or re-organizing can cause them to become increasingly agitated, paranoid, and determined to do it.

Instead, manage the behavior so it’s safer and less disruptive.


9 ways to manage dementia rummaging behavior

1. Make sure they won’t accidentally hurt themselves
If dangerous items are easily accessible, seniors with dementia could easily mistake them for safe objects and hurt themselves.

For example, they may not recognize knives as harmful objects and could cut themselves. Or they could mistake toxic products like cleaning fluids for normal beverages.

To keep them safe while they’re rummaging, remove potentially dangerous items and keep them out of sight in secured, locked areas.

Spoiled food (or even raw meat) in the refrigerator or cabinets could also be a risk. People with dementia might be looking for a snack, but aren’t able to recognize when food isn’t safe to eat.

Clear out food as it expires and make it difficult to access raw foods or cook them right away.


2. Protect valuables and important documents
Your older adult’s rummaging behavior might stress you out because they could lose or destroy valuable items or important papers.

The best solution is to remove anything of value or importance and lock them safely away.

That could include jewelry, legal or financial documents, checkbooks, credit cards, or keys. You could even replace some items with fakes so your older adult won’t notice they’re gone.

Another concern is that your older adult could be hiding or throwing away the mail. If that’s happening, you may want to redirect all their mail to a post office box or a trusted relative or friend’s house.


3. Look for triggers
Sometimes, a person with dementia might start rummaging in response to a triggering event. Maybe they do it at a certain time each day, when they get bored, or when they’re agitated.

You may find that sticking to a regular daily routine helps because it gives structure and rhythm to the day. That reduces the uncertainty and anxiety that could trigger rummaging.

Try to look for patterns in their behavior and see if you can figure out what might be causing their rummaging.

You could use distraction strategies like engaging them in an activity they enjoy or maybe having a snack and favorite beverage.


4. Make commonly used items easy to find
Your older adult might have a valid reason for rummaging. They could be looking for a specific item, but can’t find it and can’t explain what they’re looking for.

Helping them easily see or locate commonly used items is another way to reduce rummaging behavior.

You could put things in clear containers or specific drawers and label the contents.

Or keep similar items together, like gathering a certain amount of clothing into one drawer – underwear, tops, bottoms, socks, etc.


5. Have backups of frequently lost items
Some older adults don’t feel at ease until they know exactly where a specific object is. If that’s the case, consider buying multiples of that thing or as similar an item as possible.

For example, if your mom is always looking for her purse, buy a few inexpensive ones that are the same or similar style. That way you’ll always be able to help her “find” it.




6. Reduce overall anxiety levels
In some cases, rummaging is a response to feeling anxious or agitated.

If you notice that your older adult seems frantic or anxious while they’re rummaging, it’s helpful to try and figure out the cause.

Repetitive behavior like rummaging can be soothing to someone who is feeling anxious. Simply going through familiar items can be comforting.

If this is the case, reducing their overall anxiety level can reduce their need to rummage.


7. Reduce boredom with activities
Rummaging behavior could also be caused by boredom or loneliness.

People with dementia might not be able to find satisfying activities for themselves. Or they may need to interact with more people.

For some people, group interaction and activities in adult day programs may be a good solution. Others may enjoy having more visitors, whether it’s family, friends, or an in-home caregiver.

Offering a variety of no-fail activities is another way to reduce rummaging behavior. Having something engaging and absorbing to do distracts from the urge to rummage and redirects their attention.

Many seniors with dementia enjoy listening and singing along to music, caring for dolls, simple puzzles, coloring, and more.

Experiment with different activities to see which ones your older adult likes.


8. Help them feel productive
What looks like rummaging to us could be a way for your older adult to feel like they’re doing something productive.

In that case, it helps to offer alternate activities that help them feel like they’re being productive and contributing to the household.

You could ask them to help you with simple tasks they’ll be able to do successfully.

For example, ask them to fold socks or washcloths, sort silverware, prep vegetables (safe kitchen aids allow them to do more without injury), sort paperwork (use non-important documents), or organize a junk drawer (filled with safe, but unimportant items).

The goal isn’t to have them do these things correctly, but to help them feel they’re doing something useful.


9. Treat rummaging as an activity
If your older adult is enjoying themselves or if it calms them, there’s no reason to stop them from rummaging – think of it as an engaging activity they really like.

If the behavior is getting on your nerves because they’re rummaging everywhere and making a mess, you could set up a rummage box or dedicated rummage areas.

Filling certain drawers, cabinets, baskets, or boxes with a variety of items that they’re typically drawn to might get them used to rummaging in those specific places.

You could include items like clothing, socks, copies of memorable photos, a fake checkbook, books, greeting cards, or a wallet filled with old receipts, cards that look like credit cards, and fake money – anything they’re interested in.

Things that are related to their hobbies or former career are also great as rummage materials.

You could even create themed boxes like a sewing or knitting drawer, a sports basket, a costume jewelry box, a tool box, a box of music-related items, etc.


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By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Jon Merril


This article wasn’t sponsored, but does contain affiliate links. We never link to products or services for the sole purpose of making a commission. Recommendations are based on our honest opinions. For more information, see How We Make Money.


  • Reply July 23, 2021

    Jackie Totherow

    Thank you very much I needed more information about taking care of my caregiver with dementia and I’ve been aggravated is really aggravated but I didn’t know how to take care of them I thought he was doing on purpose which has can tell now that he ain’t I read some of the stuff but I really would love to have more

  • Reply October 22, 2020


    When people start packing to go home and they are home(not in a nursing home and it’s the first time they have done it…is that a new stage?

    • Reply November 5, 2020


      A new behavior doesn’t necessarily indicate a progression in someone’s dementia. There are general stages to dementia (early, middle, late), but the progression is unique and different for each person so it’s important to remember that someone with dementia may not always fit in a specific stage or go through every stage.

      We’ve got more info here about dementia stages, common symptoms in each stage, and why someone’s symptoms don’t always fit into these stages – 3 Stages of Dementia: What to Expect as the Disease Progresses https://dailycaring.com/3-stages-of-dementia-what-to-expect/

  • Reply April 30, 2020


    Thank you for not telling Sherrie to get respite, to take time for herself. That’s what everyone says and we all know that. No one in my family will take mom for even a couple hours. And I’m sure if I took her to a day care center she would get really mad. I understand what you’re talking about Sherry. Attitudes my mom had when I was a child are back again to haunt me now. I feel ridiculous, but standing in front of the mirror and giving myself, out loud, a lot of credit, daily, can help.

    • Reply April 30, 2020


      Giving yourself credit aloud is a wonderful practice!! You absolutely deserve to hear it.

      So sorry to hear that your family isn’t helpful 😥

      In case you haven’t already tried this technique, you could try calling an adult day program a social club, activity center, or something like that to make it sound less like “day care.” Sometimes, people who are resistant to the idea end up really enjoying day programs after they give them a try for a few days.

  • Reply October 26, 2018


    Some of these behaviors may be common.Not everyone who exhibits these behavior’s has dementia or Alzheimer’s.These behaviours are also commonly seen in someone who has been harassed and exploited extorted.Despite true efforts to stop it.Its been found in all age groups that have been a target of these type crimes.Why am I writing this is that older people are at a disadvantage and more likely to be falsely diagnosed with a disease like alzheimers dementia.Look at the power structure and you can see why they are afraid.Where I live this has happened several times not only to older people but younger ones.Many, but not all, got a second opinion and it was discovered that they were not suffering from dementia, but a crime.If you seriously think its not possible, for someone in assisted living to be further driven downhill ,by staff harassing them, you need to wake up.Its easy to blame the downhill slide on a disease, to cover up incompetence and exploitation of the patient by caregivers.

    • Reply October 26, 2018


      That’s true, not everyone who exhibits these types of behaviors has Alzheimer’s or dementia. There are many treatable conditions that could cause temporary cognitive impairment. That’s one of many reasons it’s so helpful to have an advocate who can watch out for potential elder abuse.

  • Reply May 2, 2018


    This is my dad to a T!! I live in a different state so I am unable to see him daily. But, when I visit, I see him doing these things. He retired from IBM, so his office is his “safe place.” He has moved important documents from one file to another, etc. You have shared such terrific ideas! I pray that my mom will be accepting of this article & not get angry with me for sharing it with her. also, my brother gets mad at me for sharing articles that I find helpful, with him. Thanks so much.

    • Reply May 2, 2018


      I’m so glad this article is helpful! I hope these suggestions will be useful for you and your mom too. But it’s true that some family members may find it more difficult to accept a dementia diagnosis or common behaviors. Hang in there, you’re doing the right thing by sending helpful information. It may just take your mom and brother a little more time to come to terms with your dad’s health condition.

  • Reply October 26, 2017

    Susan Little

    Aged care facilities should read this

    • Reply October 26, 2017


      So true, it would be great if every care community was well-trained in dementia care. For now, families need to seek out the communities that are knowledgeable about dementia.

  • Reply June 30, 2017


    When you read the cause and ways you should handle situations. Sound so easy. Every day it’s something new. By mid day your tired of watching everything. Trying to figure out what next. Thinking of places to go. Things to do. Figure out meals. All while there telling you everything you do is wrong. I feel like I can’t do anything right. Like what did I do now. Did I cough to load. Am I talking to load anything and everything I do is wrong. Why is she always angry at me. Yet let somebody call or come into the space. Than she’s all puppy dogs rainbows and smiles. I start to question how much more can I take. Than she will smile. Want a hug. Or ask me with tears in her eyes. Why does God hate me? At that moment I remind myself I do it because I love her. It’s not her fault. And my days starts all over again.

    • Reply July 2, 2017


      I’m so sorry you’re dealing with so much 😢 Dementia care can be incredibly tough 💔 Please don’t blame yourself and try not to take her behavior personally, it’s truly caused by the damage in her brain. When she gets angry, it might help to walk away for a few minutes to reset the situation. Some people with dementia do behave better for strangers, often due to the deeply ingrained habits of social conditioning. Try to focus on those good moments 💜💜

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