One of the most common signs of the ageing brain is repetition. If you spend a lot of time with an elderly loved one – particularly if they suffer from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia – you may have noticed that they have a habit of repeating themselves, whether it’s telling the same story multiple times, asking the same question, or performing the same actions.
This behaviour is so prevalent in dementia patients that it has its own name – Same Story Syndrome – though, it’s worth noting that repetition is by no means always related to progressive brain conditions.
Whatever the reason your loved one is repeating themselves, it can be both alarming and frustrating. But, it’s important to think about how you respond to the behaviour, which isn’t always what it seems on the surface.
So, to help make your time with your loved one as pleasurable as possible and enable you to give them the best support you can – while also keeping your cool – we’ll take a closer look at the issue below.
Here are seven ways to respond when your elderly loved one repeats themselves.
1. Understand the cause
The first step in knowing how to deal with repetition is understanding the cause – because once you truly understand why your loved one is repeating themselves, it’s much easier to empathise and figure out how best to respond.
If your loved one has a form of dementia, the main reason they’re repeating themselves is due to the deterioration of brain cells, which harms their ability to make sense of the world. Your loved one simply doesn’t remember they’ve just told a story or asked a question. Other times, people with dementia repeat themselves to express a concern, ask for help, or deal with frustration or anxiety.
But you don’t need to have dementia to start repeating yourself. As the brain ages, it can become less sharp, which is why some forgetfulness is normal in elderly people. But there are also deeper, more philosophical reasons why they may repeat themselves.
As we get older, our perspective on life changes. Many people feel the need to ruminate, think about their histories, and wonder what their legacy may be. Recounting stories from the past is one way to work through this, and sharing memories and experiences with loved ones can help people find meaning in their lives, and figure out how their pasts shaped their present and future.
Nonetheless, no matter how well you understand why your loved one is repeating themselves, that doesn’t mean you won’t feel irritation when they keep doing it…especially if it’s the 10th time you’ve heard a story! So the next step is about how you actually deal with the repetition itself.
2. Check the emotion
Once you’ve noticed your loved one repeating themselves, the next step is to identify the emotion behind what’s being said. Does the repetitive question or story seem problematic, and does your loved one seem in any distress?
If you sense an emotion behind the words, try to respond to that rather than the words themselves. Sometimes repetition can be triggered by an unmet need or challenging emotion – confusion, fear, or pain – and your loved one may be trying to communicate something.
It’s also worth looking for other reasons behind the repetition that could suggest your loved one is trying to communicate something. For example, does the repetition occur at certain times, in specific places, or around certain people?
If there’s no negative emotion behind the repetition, it might be that your loved one simply enjoys telling a story or asking questions about a certain subject – which brings us onto the next point.
3. Use validation
Validation therapy is often used to comfort people living with dementia, but it can also be used to reassure people who don’t have cognitive impairment. It’s a way to approach elderly people with empathy and understanding, listening to what they’re saying, and responding in a supportive way.
Validation therapy involves more than just validating a person’s feelings, although that’s a key component of it. It also focuses on helping someone understand and work through the emotions behind certain behaviours – particularly those like repetition, which are often ways of communicating other feelings.
Matching the emotion your loved one is feeling and expressing yourself can be a big help. For example, if your loved one is repeating a sad story about how they miss their mother, you could acknowledge the sadness, and ask them questions about the relationship they had.
For more on validation therapy, you may want to have a read of this article by Verywell Health.
If your loved one keeps repeating a story, question, or action, the next step is to try to distract them.
Try changing the topic of conversation. For example, if they have grandchildren, you could talk to them about how they are. Or, perhaps you could tell them about a friend or family member who’s done something interesting lately.
Depending on how good your loved one’s memory is, they might not remember all the things you’re talking about, but it may help them break out of the repetitive cycle they’re stuck in.
Similar to distraction is redirection, which is where you try to redirect your loved one’s attention to an activity they can focus on. If your loved one has a favourite TV show or film, why not put it on, or play their favourite music? Food, crafts, and chores can also be good ways to redirect focus.
If your loved one is repeating an action, like rubbing their hands together or twisting their fingers – a common sign of anxiety – you might want to suggest ways to keep their hands occupied.
You could give them a cloth and ask them for some help with dusting, hand them some cards and ask them to shuffle the deck, or ask if they can help you fold laundry or tea towels.
6. Take a deep breath
No matter how good you are at validation, distraction, or redirection, your patience will inevitably be tested when your loved one keeps repeating themselves. While it’s understandable to feel frustrated, it’s really important that you try to stay calm and be patient. If you feel yourself getting exasperated, take a few deep breaths or step into another room for a moment.
Remind yourself that your loved one isn’t repeating themselves to annoy you, and they will be unaware that they’re doing so. Saying “You already told me that” isn’t helpful, as they don’t remember doing so, and it may cause your loved one to feel insecure and anxious.
Remember that this could be you someday, and being patient with your loved one and keeping them engaged can go a long way in improving their quality of life.
7. Practice compassion (to yourself)
While it’s important to show empathy to your loved one, it’s also important to practise compassion towards yourself. If you do lose your patience and snap at your loved one, you’ll probably feel bad afterwards – but be kind to yourself.
Remember that you’re only human, and this isn’t an easy road to navigate. Unfortunately, knowing that your loved one can’t help repeating themselves won’t always stop you from feeling irritated.
But, if you do snap at your loved one, try to find a quick way to repair your relationship – go for a short walk together, change the conversation, play a game together, or ask if your loved one would like to help you with a simple chore, like folding laundry or putting cutlery away.
Remember that staying calm is a practice, like learning a language or doing yoga. The more you practise your patience, and find helpful ways to respond when your loved one repeats themselves, the easier it will get, and the better you’ll react.
While using tactics like validation, distraction, and redirection can be good ways to respond when a loved one repeats themselves, do remind yourself to have realistic expectations of your responses.
Above all, it’s important to be kind – both to your loved one and to yourself.
Do you spend time with a loved one who repeats themself? Do you have any other suggestions for how to respond? We’re interested to hear about your experiences. Leave us a comment below.