Why Does My Loved One Rummage and Hide Things?

When a person is living with Alzheimer's disease or a related condition, family caregivers are often troubled by changes in the way their loved one acts. These changes, sometimes referred to as "behaviors" or "negative behaviors," are better considered for what they truly are: expressions of the person's needs, as distorted by the effects of the disease. Empathy and understanding that there may be a rational reason behind seemingly irrational actions helps caregivers devise strategies for preserving their loved one's safety and dignity while making things easier for family.

One behavior that families find challenging is "rummaging"—the impulse some people with Alzheimer's have to search compulsively through drawers, cabinets, the refrigerator and other places where things are stored. The person also may hide things, squirrelling away food, favorite objects and seemingly random items around the house.

The National Institutes of Health's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center (ADEAR) reminds caregivers to think about the logic behind this behavior. Most obviously, the effect of Alzheimer's on memory means that your loved is increasingly unable to recall the location of things. Your loved one might be searching for something, or unable to recall what it is or to express to you what they are looking for. Hiding things away may be your loved one's attempt to feel safe. Hunger, boredom or discomfort can escalate these behaviors.

ADEAR advises that trying to entirely curtail rummaging and hiding can lead to frustration and conflict. Instead, take steps to adapt, redirect and supervise.

Begin by making changes in the home to keep your loved one safe:

  • Place dangerous or toxic items and products beyond your loved one's sight and reach, or lock them up.
  • Remove any spoiled food from the refrigerator and cabinets.
  • Remove valuable items that could be misplaced or hidden away. Put important papers, checkbooks, credit cards, jewelry and keys in a place where your loved one won’t find them.
  • People with Alzheimer's often hide, lose or throw away mail. If this is a serious problem, move your mailbox outside the fence or to another location where your loved one can't access it. Or, consider getting a post office box.

Next, create a special place where your loved one can rummage freely. This could be a chest of drawers, a bag of objects, or a basket of clothing to fold and unfold. Provide a personal storage box where your loved one can keep special objects. When your loved one is rummaging in places where you don't want them to, redirect them to their special designated area and container.

Three Tips for Caring Supervision

  1. Keep your loved one from going into unused rooms. This prevents rummaging and hiding things.
  2. Search the house to learn where your loved one tends to hide things. Check these places often, preferably at a time when your loved one can't see you doing so.
  3. Check trash containers before you empty them, in case your loved one has thrown something away by accident or hidden something there. People with Alzheimer's may not distinguish between household items and trash, so it may be best to keep all trash cans covered and out of sight.

Tips provided by the Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center (ADEAR). Visit the ADEAR website for more caregiving tips.

For more insights into managing challenging behavioral expressions of Alzheimer's disease, read "Alzheimer's Caregiving: Can You Help Too Much?" in the May 2013 issue of Caring Right at Home.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.