Being asked the same question over and over again by someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia is a common frustration among caregivers.
Their failing short-term memory doesn’t allow them to remember the answer the first time you give it...or the fourteenth time.
For them, every time they ask, it’s the first time. Which is what makes it important to keep calm when answering, even as your will to answer the same question yet again disappears.
Phrases you want to remove from your vocabulary, even though they will naturally be the ones you reach for:
“I already told you”
“Don’t you remember?”
“We’ve been over this 17 times!”
Why Do They Do That?
To keep their questions from driving you absolutely bonkers, it may help to first understand why they might be asking in the first place. A part of it is their failing memory and that they forget they already asked.
But a bigger part of it is that they are probably feeling stressed, anxious, scared, or frustrated. Living with dementia means living with a lot of confusion, not knowing where or when you are, not being able to recognize the people around you, not understanding the situation you find yourself in, being told to do things when you've been an independent adult for a long time.
As their brain deteriorates, they won’t be as able to put these feelings into words anymore, and often you’ll see repetitive behavior instead, including questions. The questions aren’t really about getting information, but about getting reassurance.
Six Ways to Handle Their Repetitive Questions
Look for the feelings that might be behind their question, rather than focusing on the question itself. Respond to the feeling, doing what you can to comfort that emotion. It can sometimes soothe if you put their feelings into words for them. Try a hug or a hand squeeze or rubbing their arm or back. Give them a blanket or a comforting object.
Answer the question and move on. Keep your answer simple and brief. Avoid logic or reasoning. Do your best to remember it’s the disease causing the repetition, not them, or for them it’s the first time they’ve asked.
Distract and redirect. Answer the question briefly, then shift their attention elsewhere, so that maybe they move on from that particular question. Ask them a question about something else, or use the question itself as a launchpad to a conversation about a related topic. Engage them in an activity or give them something to help you with.
Write it down. Sometimes it can help to post a calendar or a sign somewhere easily visible with the answer to questions that come up the most. When they ask, direct them to check the memory aid you've created, and maybe over time they can learn to check there on their own. You can also write down a reassuring phrase for them to see, like “You are safe” or “Your family loves you,” that can help alleviate anxiety.
Check the environment for triggers. Is there anything going on in the environment that could be agitating them? Is it loud and noisy? Is anything new or different? Are they physically uncomfortable in some way? Is something going on with a loved one that could be causing them worry? Then change anything you can in the environment and provide reassurance.
Escape. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you know you just can’t take the questions anymore, step away even for a few minutes, go to the bathroom, check social media, take some deep breaths, whatever it takes to give yourself space to cool down and get back to a place where you have a better chance of responding with love and kindness.
Being asked the same question a hundred times in a row can get on your very last nerve, but hopefully these six methods can help you cut down on the number of repetitions, or at least help you keep your cool a bit longer.
If you do lose it, don’t beat yourself up...you’re only human. You’re doing your best. Forgive yourself, give yourself time to calm down, and try again.