Why People With Dementia Rummage Through Drawers and Cupboards

Perhaps you've seen your loved one who has dementia repeatedly rearrange, empty out and refill dresser drawers, and then move on to the cupboard and do the same thing there. This activity is known as rummaging, and it's a behavior that sometimes develops in Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

Male Alzheimer's patient sitting on bed, reminders on dresser drawers

Why Rummaging Is Considered a Challenging Behavior

Rummaging can be very frustrating for caregivers because it can make quite a mess. The entire contents of dressers may be removed and sometimes can be hidden all over the room. Caregivers can feel like they're constantly putting things back or trying to find what the person with dementia has moved around.

Sometimes, rummaging can be a concern for the person with dementia if it is related to anxiety and causing distress.

At other times, rummaging seems to be an enjoyable activity, such as where the person is sorting items or going through familiar items that may be reassuring to them.

Why It Develops

Sometimes, people rummage because they've hidden an item and can't remember where they placed it. This may result in them believing that it was stolen from them. 

Other people appear to rummage to go through items that are familiar and reassuring to them. This desire to have familiar things around them can sometimes be combined with hoarding extra items, whether it's food, papers or clothes.

Rummaging may also be triggered by boredom. People with dementia at times may experience loneliness and boredom, and sorting through the things around them can occupy their time.

How to Respond to Rummaging

While you may be tempted to try to stop the rummaging, consider why the person is doing it. If it seems to be serving a positive purpose such as reassuring her, consider how you can allow for the behavior. Start with these tips:

  • Remove items that are valuable, such as an important collection, or that could pose a danger. For example, make sure that chemicals and other harmful objects are not accessible. Sharp objects, such as scissors and knives, should also not be accessible.
  • Provide a drawer or even a whole dresser full of items that are safe and inexpensive. Make rummaging an activity to enjoy.
  • Offer alternate activities such as sorting colored socks or folding washcloths. These common household tasks may be reassuring and enjoyable.
  • Use distraction strategies and provide other meaningful activities, especially if you believe that boredom is responsible for rummaging behaviors.
  • Create a rummage box by using a shoebox to hold special pictures (but make sure you have kept the originals in a safe place), items related to his hobbies, or objects that he used to work with at his work. If your loved one is moving to a nursing home or assisted living, be certain to send this valuable tool along with him.
  • If she appears to be anxious or distressed while she rummages, try to figure out why. If it's because she's looking for a specific object and can't find it, consider buying several of that object or a close replica to provide her with reassurance. Sometimes, one particular object can make someone with dementia feel grounded and safe.
  • If her rummaging seems to bring her pleasure and is not posing a significant issue other than creating a mess at times, don't sweat it. Think of it as an activity that brings her joy and reassurance.
  • However, if your loved one's rummaging seems related to emotional distress such as a consistent paranoia that someone is stealing from her, be sure to report this behavior to the doctor to discuss other possible treatment options to improve her quality of life.

A Word From Verywell

It's not unusual to feel some irritation if your loved one is constantly moving things around, opening drawers or cupboards to look in them, and rearranging and losing their contents.

It may be helpful to view her rummaging as a picture of her attempting to rearrange things enough to make sense, since it is likely that her world does not make sense to her right now, and to find the information and familiarity that she's missing, as she lives with a lack of information and familiarity on a daily basis.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Alzheimer's Association. Rummaging, Hiding, and Hoarding Behaviors. July 2017.

  • Home Instead Senior Care. How to Create and Use the Rummage Box. September 9, 2013.

  • US Department of Health & Human Services. National Institute on Aging. When a Person with Alzheimer's Rummages and Hides Things. May 17, 2017.

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.