Repetition, repetition, repetition

One of the symptoms of dementia that those around the person with dementia find most difficult to cope with is repetition. Families and professionals alike often express frustration, leading onto exasperation, which often ends in irritation and possibly even an argument with the person who has dementia.

Repetition is a very common symptom of dementia. My dad went through a stage of repeating the same questions, and as his communication ability diminished the repetitive questions were replaced by saying the same words or phrases over and over again. To begin with those words or phrases would sometimes bear some correlation to the situation or conversation going on at that time, but as the years went by they became completely random.

The patterns of my dad’s repetitive speech often left me wondering what message he was trying to convey to me, and that is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of repetition for the people around an individual with dementia. You desperately want to unravel the meaning behind their words and respond to that with an answer that provides the reassurance they may be looking for, but without being able to move the conversation on the prospect of finding a resolution that gets to the heart of what the person with dementia needs or wants becomes a distant one.

As someone observing a loved one’s life with dementia, it is impossible to truly know the impact of repetition on the person who is living with dementia. I would suggest, however, that many of the feelings that a carer is experiencing (frustration, exasperation and irritation) are potentially also being experienced by the person with dementia too. The difficulty for the person with dementia is that they don’t necessarily have the ability, either verbally or through physical demonstration (body language or expression), to make those feelings clear. That puts them at a distinct disadvantage to those of us who are family carers or care workers.

It’s interesting that as a carer of a person with dementia, the carer’s feelings are often seen to be somehow different from the person with dementia, but the emotions that go alongside coping with repetition – as with so many other symptoms of dementia – can be remarkably similar for the person with dementia and those around them, giving us more in common than we often realise.

Developing coping mechanisms is a key attribute for a carer, because so many people simply don’t cope well with constant repetition – examples of coping methods include taking a quick ‘time out’ or deep breathing exercises (these may sound trivial, but they do work for some carers). Patience is another key attribute. I’ve never yet seen or experienced a resolution to a person’s constant repetition by losing patience with them. Yes they may have asked what the time is, requested the toilet or questioned when the next mealtime is on 20 occasions already, but getting angry is unlikely to prevent the next 20 requests. Equally, telling the person that they’ve already asked that question or said that statement isn’t likely to help end their repetition because they may very well not remember what they said previously.

Of course it’s easy to say ‘exercise patience’ – repetition can be incredibly mentally draining to both listen to and constantly respond to  – but alongside patience there are other techniques that can be helpful, although I’d stress that as each person with dementia is an individual, what will work well for one person won’t necessarily have an impact with someone else. 


Techniques to try include:

Embedding your response: Persistent questioning about the time can sometimes be resolved by providing a ‘dementia friendly’ clock or similar item, enabling the person with dementia to track time themselves which helps facilitate their independence. Coupling that with a day-by-day board that enables the person to track what is happening when can help with questions about daily events, like mealtimes, whilst good signage can assist with enabling the person to go to the toilet independently without having to ask. However, visual aids only work if the person has good vision and the cognitive ability to absorb what they are seeing, so make sure this is checked – move to audible reminders if hearing is a stronger sense than vision. Likewise, if the person doesn’t have the mobility to meet their needs (like going to the toilet), then your help will always be required.

Distraction – Changing the conversation: Some carers successfully use distraction techniques to move the conversation away from whatever the person with dementia is repeating and towards something else. This can work, although sometimes moving away from a topic causing repetition can then mean that wherever you steer the conversation to next will become a topic for repetition.

Distraction – Activity: Introducing an activity, be it something to do with daily living (“Let’s make a cup of tea,” or “Let’s do some housework.”) or a hobby that the person enjoys, can be helpful in taking their mind off whatever the topic is of their repetition. Offering the right activity for the moment is key here, and may need to be something more energetic, like going outside or making the bed, or could be something much more sedate, like reading a book together or singing songs.


What I personally wouldn’t advocate is ignoring the person. Some people use this as a technique in the belief that the person with dementia will simply give up the repetition when they don’t get a response, and by responding you only fuel repetition further – a bit like the parenting technique where you leave the child to self-sooth. However, in relation to dementia I dislike this as a technique because apart from anything else it feels disrespectful. It also does nothing to increase the person’s trust in those around them, doesn’t encourage their independence in any way (even though it may be used in the false belief that it does increase independence), doesn’t help to meet any unmet needs that they may have, and runs the risk of something vital being missed.

The risk, when repetition becomes very monotonous and wearing is that a carer becomes so immersed in coping with it that vital clues are ignored, which might result in an episode of incontinence or not recognizing when something is wrong with the person’s health. When repetition takes the form of answering yes to every question asked, or no to every question asked, it might seem reasonable (and easier) to take those answers at face value, but it may simply be that the person is repeating an answer because that’s their current pattern of repetition, rather than because they really intended to give that answer.

This doesn’t mean that the person with dementia is being untruthful, it’s just how their dementia is manifesting itself at that time. Always be alert that an answer on a key issue, like how a person is feeling in relation to their health, should also be accompanied by the carer observing the person to make sure vital opportunities – for example to spot the deterioration of an infection – aren’t missed.

One final key point about repetition is that it is rarely static indefinitely. What is the sole topic of repetition one week can easily change the next week, and sometimes repetition stops as suddenly as it began, in the same way that many dementia symptoms come and go. When all else fails, responding with soothing kindness will at least ensure that you have tried to alleviate any distress being felt, and that you have appreciated the key point that the person with dementia may be feeling just as unhappy about their repetition as you are.

Until next time…

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