"You Took It!" Paranoia & Rummaging with Dementia

Dentures in the silverware drawer. A favorite trinket hidden behind a stack of books. Hearing aids buried deep in a trash can. There’s no limit to where some people with dementia will hide their belongings to keep them out of the hands of “thieves.” And, when they can’t find their possessions later, family members are often the prime suspects.

“There are many reasons seniors with memory loss rummage,” says Halie Dickinson, Community Relations Director at YourLife™ of Tallahassee, a Memory Care community in Tallahassee, Florida. “It is not their fault that they do it, and it’s not the caregiver’s fault when they find themselves at their wits’ end, either. It helps to remember that our loved ones exhibit these behaviors because of their dementia, and like many symptoms, there are things we can do to help alleviate paranoia by having a better understanding of what’s driving the behavior.”

If you’ve ever watched your loved one become frustrated foraging up and down for their belongings – and been on the receiving end of their accusations of theft -- this post is for you.

But First, What Causes Paranoia and Rummaging Behavior?

People with memory loss experience disorientation and mental confusion that, when they try to make sense of their world, can manifest into paranoia and rummaging behaviors. Sometimes these behaviors are exclusive of each other, but they often go hand in hand.  

Rummaging can be a result of people not remembering where they put things or can be a reassuring activity for others to surround themselves with items that are familiar to them.  However, paranoia can seep in and take over when they don’t remember where they put items or even hiding them at all. And that’s when the accusations can start flying.

So, if you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t, what do you do...or don’t do? In this post, we’ll offer some tips to help you reassure your loved one and manage rummaging behaviors.

11 Tips for Managing Paranoia and Rummaging Behavior

  1. Make their items visible. Your loved one may have specific things they are always seeking. Make sure the common objects are visible and within reach so they don’t search places they shouldn’t, such as on high shelves.
  2. Give them a space to keep their treasures. Let the routines and habits that people with dementia favor work in your favor. Dedicate a shelf or a drawer solely to your loved one’s items. If the person has a habit of hiding things in the trash, safety-lock the kitchen can under the sink and give them their own “trash bin” to use and advise everyone in the house not to use or disturb that particulate wastebasket. Make frequent visits to this space part of your loved one’s routine, assuring them that it is theirs. Having a safe and familiar place to keep – and find – items that are important to them can calm anxieties.
  3. Observe – from a distance. Did you see your loved one hide something? Remember the spot, but don’t draw attention to the behavior or remove the item right away. They want their belongings safe; if they see you remove it, it’s no longer “safe” – and your loved one might find a new hiding place that even you can’t find later.

If you find hearing aids buried under tissues in the bathroom wastebasket, don’t admonish your loved one. Although a wastebasket is certainly less than ideal, “the hiding spot you know...” Being aware of this rather common hiding place will remind you to check its contents for valuables before emptying it and, if your loved one accuses you of stealing their hearing aids, you’ll know that’s the first place to look.

  1. Buy extras. If your loved one tends to lose their glasses or seek pieces of jewelry you don’t want them to lose, buy duplicates or cheaper versions of these items to have on hand in case they can’t be found.
  2. Keep them safe. Like pacing, rummaging may be a way for your loved one to self-soothe. And as with pacing, make sure there aren’t any obstacles that your loved one can trip over and fall when they are in a rummaging mode. Lock up toxic products and ensure there aren’t any sharp or dangerous objects in the areas they tend to rummage.
  3. Protect valuables. Ensure that valuables are not accessible by your loved one so they don’t misplace or hide them. Items such as important documents, jewelry, cell phones, keys, checkbooks, etc., should be kept in a place safe from rummaging hands.
  4. Determine if there are triggers. Pay attention and perhaps even keep a log of when rummaging behaviors occur to identify any triggers. Noting times of day, before or after meals, right before bedtime or anxiety-inducing activities such as bathing, etc., will allow you to predict and mitigate such behaviors (see below).
  5. Are they bored? Keep them active. If they are rummaging because they are bored, perhaps you can give them other activities to do to avoid rummaging. Try activities such as listening to music or looking at photo albums.
  6. Give them a purpose. Sometimes, rummaging behavior is a result of wanting to feel productive by organizing or searching. If this is the case, you can help them achieve that goal without worrying about missing or misplaced items by giving them something to work on. This can include activities such as organizing socks or folding washcloths and hand towels.
  7. Make rummaging the activity. If foraging itself is the activity your loved one prefers, create an area meant for rummaging with safe items, including a few that they often seek. Keep a drawer, cabinet, or entire dresser for them to rummage through whenever they please.
  8. Keep them calm. There are specific ways you can communicate with your loved ones that will help them stay calm while catering to their needs. If they are agitated when they are rummaging, you’ll want to stay calm and keep them calm, as well, with hand-holding or comforting words.

6 Ways to Deal with Paranoia and Accusations

It’s not always easy to be at the receiving end of accusations and dementia-related paranoia. However, by understanding why they exhibit these behaviors and how to mitigate them, you can ultimately find peace with it.

  1. Know why they do it. Seniors with memory loss and disorientation tend to adopt beliefs that are untrue because they simply can’t remember certain people or things. Though these beliefs are completely inaccurate, they are very real to those experiencing dementia. Plus, when they have gaps in their memory, they may connect dots that are not actually there, resulting in these false accusations. For instance, they may believe there is an item missing, even though they removed it themselves, and see you in the room and accuse you of stealing the item.
  2. Remember it’s not a personal attack. It’s important not to take it personally. It’s not always easy, but if you simply remind yourself that it is a result of their memory loss or adopt a mantra (“They don’t mean it. It’s not about me.”) that can keep you from taking it personally, you’ll fare much better.
  3. Don’t argue or give complex explanations. Arguing with your loved one will not help the situation. Instead, let them know that you hear and understand them. If an explanation is in order, keep it simple. Overcomplicating explanations may result in further confusion and agitation.
  4. Keep calm and carry on. Keeping calm may sound impossible at certain points with your loved one, but it’s important so you can continue to care for them adequately while maintaining calming, self-care practices.
  5. Distract them with something interesting to do. This is a good time to take a walk outside or pull out the old photo albums or play a card game. Something easy and familiar may help ground your loved one and keep them occupied and happy.
  6. Seek support. There are fantastic resources out there for caregivers to seek support and understanding of loved ones’ memory loss needs. If nothing else, it’s important to understand you are not alone with your struggles with rummaging and paranoia.

Paranoia and rummaging behaviors can be challenging to deal with, and the false accusations can sting, but keeping your loved one’s perspective in perspective – and a watchful eye on their triggers and hiding spots – can help you find ways to ease their anxieties.

Call YourLife™ of Tallahassee today to learn how our dementia care experts reduce anxieties and reassure people in all stages of memory loss. ​850-250-5671


Inspired ● Engaged ● Fulfilled

If someone you love is living with memory loss, you want the very best for them. You’ll find it at YourLife™ of Tallahassee. Because Memory Care is all that we do, we have the unique ability to focus all our energy, attention and resources into creating an environment that caters to each resident’s needs, preferences and abilities while providing unequaled peace of mind and support for families.

We see each resident as an individual because we understand that each resident has their own story. Using this idea, we develop personally inspired care plans that value and support each person’s independence while creating beautiful days. No matter how much care they need, our team of attentive, caring YourLife™ Personal Care Specialists can provide assistance with all activities of daily living while providing reminders, guidance, support and cues. Even better, residents and their families experience true peace of mind knowing that expert care is on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Our personal touch doesn’t stop at our care. In fact, it’s only just the beginning. We create days that leave residents feeling Inspired. Engaged. Fulfilled through our signature programming, YourStory. With individual experiences centered around each resident, engaging outings, services and amenities, activities, dining and more, we create opportunities to learn and pursue new endeavors. At YourLife™ of Tallahassee, everything was designed for you, but it is defined by you, creating a lifestyle that makes every day a joy. Contact us to learn more!

Call us at 850-250-5671 for more information or to schedule a personal visit today.