What To Do When a Parent Repeats the Same Things Over and Over

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One sign of the aging brain, even without dementia, is that people repeat themselves more often, especially when they tell stories. There are reasons for this that are not related to dementia, though of course with dementia, this tendency has a different root and is much more frequent. We'll discuss dementia shortly.

Why Would an Aging Person Repeat Stories if No Dementia is Present?

As we age, life takes on a different perspective. There's a human need to make sense of what has happened in one's past, and reflect on what will be our legacy. The added years give us a chance to view our past with distance and some perspective. Retelling stories about our past is one way to work through this process.

In other words, if your parents retell a story every now and then, and you think "I've heard that a hundred times," please have the patience to let them tell it again. Your elder is working through the past to find a sense of meaning. Elders often want, consciously or unconsciously, to figure out how events shaped their present, and will play into their future and beyond.

But That's Different Than When Someone has Dementia!

I wrote the information above because I feel that adult children, once they understand the importance of an elder retelling personal stories, will perhaps have more patience with their elders. I also would like younger folks to know that the fact that their elder repeats some stories doesn't necessarily mean the elder has dementia.

However, my heart does go out to the many of you who must listen to the same statement 20 times in an hour, because the parent or other loved one has dementia and has lost short-term memory. This short-term memory loss makes it impossible for the person with dementia to remember what they just said, so they say it again – and again – and again.

How Do Caregivers Handle This Repetition Without Losing Our Own Sanity?

You'd like me to give you a magic answer, I'm sure. If I had one, believe me, that knowledge would be a headline in the New York Times. Unfortunately, I don't. However, my instincts tell me this:

Get educated

Try to understand. Your loved one isn't repeating statements to irritate you. Remember that this could be you one day. Your loved one can't remember giving you the message in his or her brain, so out it comes again – repeatedly. If you understand the reason for this behavior, you will likely find you can be less irritated and more patient.

Dealing With Elderly Who Repeat Themselves

I rarely advise thinking about elders and children as similar, because too much of that mindset can, in my opinion, skew our thinking. We can start treating an elder like a child, which they most certainly are not. However, when it comes to patience, if you remember how patient your parent was – or wasn't – with you when you were a youngster, you may find you can be more patient with this annoying symptom of dementia. Children repeat things often in order to make new information a part of their memory and to understand what is happening in a new context. An elder with dementia repeats because of memory loss. Try to have patience for it all.

Coping With Dementia and Repeating

There are three suggestions for coping with people with dementia that you will now find on most Alzheimer's sites. These are validation, distraction and redirection. Validation is something I instinctively used with my dad after his failed brain surgery left him with severe dementia. Validation simply means that even if the person says the grass is blue, what does it hurt if you agree rather than argue? You could say, "Yes, it does kind of look blue from this angle." That doesn't hurt anyone and your elder doesn't feel like he or she is always wrong.

Validation

Validation works. Unless it doesn't. It doesn't work when the person's thoughts can cause anxiety. My dad once thought there was a war in our community because he'd seen war footage on TV. I had one heck of a time convincing him there was no war. I couldn't just agree with him and say there was a war, as he was frightened. This was a case where I had to punt, since validation obviously wasn't wise. For the most part, though, you will be able to validate your elder, even if you think your loved one is off on a "space trip."

Distraction

The next step is to try to distract your loved one. After the second or third repetition, try to talk about something else. Mention the grandchildren and what they are doing. Mention an old friend who has done something interesting. Mention your ingrown toenail. Anything to change the subject. Sometimes it helps.

Redirection

Closely related to distraction is redirection. Keep handy DVDs with old TV shows the elder once enjoyed. Or CDs of big band music. Get out an old photo album, preferably with photos of when your elder was young, because that is likely where his or her mind is. Point out people in the pictures and ask your elder to explain who they were. The chances are very good that your elder will remember that photo, and may even entertain you with a story.

I don't mean to minimize the irritation of an elder with dementia repeating the same question every five minutes. I also don't want to imply you have nothing to do but sit down and look at an old photo album to redirect his or her interest. However, these steps do work for most people, most of the time. It's generally to your advantage to validate. It can often be worth your while to carve out a few minutes to distract and re-direct. Once that's accomplished, you can relax more and get back to what you need to do. Try it, anyway. And good luck. None of this is easy.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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47 Comments

My dad is a repeater also. He is 81 years old. I love the stories he tells about he and my mom when they were young. They knew each other since they were six years old. My mom passed away November 2009 so I cherish everyone of my dads stories even though I have heard them a THOUSAND TIMES Sometimes he surprises me with one I have never heard before. So I try to be patient and listen with a greatful heart.
I am very lucky that even though Parkinson's dementia has taken my father to some misty place in his mind where I can't follow, he is still very gentle and gentlemanly. However, I have had to come to terms with responding to the same questions every few minutes. I remind myself that he is not doing it to irritate me; to him it is a fresh question and a worry every time he says it. I change my replies slightly each time: "When do we leave?" "We'll leave after your nap/ after a good supper/ not today because I have to work / oh, not until the weather clears up, we must not drive on icy roads..." It gets very tiring, but I try and help reassure him. I try and make him WANT to do what I need him to do - for example, not leave today! I give him reasons that make sense to him (icy roads, supper is ready, etc.) The advantage of short-term memory loss is the next day he doesn't remember my answers, so I can use the same ones over and over.

But it is tiring and can be annoying - hang in there!
Re ociesev's comment above: if ANY caregiver LIVED their spirituality the care would be better and lives would change all around. This is not limited to Christianity. I have had several very good caregivers who worked for my mother who were Christians. BUT, consider this: the very WORST caregiver we ever had was a Christian, who read her Bible and Daily Word faithfully. And the very best? Who is with us now? Who is loving, tender, and personal with my mom, and really sees her as an individual? She is a practicing moderate Muslim.

Judge not lest ye be judged. And generalizations, about religions, and big-ass "ifs" (... if caregivers and recievers could everyday and everyway remember to love one another as Christ loved us and He accepted death on the cross to save us, their lives would change) are dangerous at worst, useless at best. I can think of countless "ifs" that would improve life. But it's only meaningful if an individual wants, needs, and responds to the "if" and lives accordingly

In other words: I do no think this is a remotely appropriate place to evangelize, or to thrust your religious convictions on others.