Coping With Repetitive Questions

November 18, 2023
September 17, 2020
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Bre'anna Wilson
September 17, 2020
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I know as caregivers, repetitive questions can be frustrating, irritating, they can be exhausting, and even just distracting. And, if we're being completely honest, nobody really likes answering the same question over and over and over, no matter what the reason is — we just don't like doing it, right? So maybe your partner's asking you what time is it? What day is it? Do you think it will rain? Did you feed the dog? Where's the cat? When am I going to get my hair done? Things like that. Or maybe it's just like a phrase like, "I don't want to be here anymore." "I don't want to live anymore." "I need my haircut." "I'm hungry." "I'm cold."

So why does this happen? Why do people with dementia constantly ask the same question over and over and over? Unfortunately with dementia, they have a hard time learning new information, storing that information, and then retrieving it later. There's a deficit in the short term memory. So, if you remember, with dementia, unfortunately, there is brain cell damage. So, parts of the brain that are responsible for learning new information and coding, recording that information, storing and retaining that Information and then retrieving it later, become damaged. And so what you get is this difficulty holding onto that information, difficulty remembering that they asked you a question and difficulty remembering what your answer was. That's why you get these repetitive questions. Now, 9 times out of 10. They're not asking you these questions repeatedly to be difficult or obnoxious. If they could remember asking the question, and if they could remember what your answer was, they likely wouldn't ask you again. But, it's because they're having a difficult time remembering the information, that they keep asking it.

Things to Avoid

So before I get into some of the tips, I want to tell you for things that I do not recommend. Now I know people still do them, and they have varying levels of effectiveness. But in my opinion, these are four things that you really do want to try to avoid.  

1. Ignoring them.

So, I know some people feel like well, if I just ignore it, they'll stop asking it. And, usually that's not the case. What you want to keep in mind is that emotional memory lasts longer than event memory. So, even though they might not be able to remember that they asked you a question, your response or lack thereof to their question could make them feel a certain type of way and that feeling may linger. They might not be able to remember why they feel that way — but they do, right?

2.  Telling them "You already asked me that" or "You've asked me that 10 times already."

That's very easy to say, right? If somebody asks you a question again, it's like I already answered that, you already asked me that. But, you really want to avoid saying this because if you take a step back, you will realize that response really isn't helpful. Because again, remember, if they remembered that they asked you that question, they probably wouldn't ask you again. Therefore, you telling them "You already asked me that," is just generally unhelpful.

3. Giving them different answers every time, just for the fun of it or just to keep things interesting.

In this case, I'm not talking about answering differently, to see if they understand better or rephrasing to see if they understand better the next time around. I'm talking about giving silly answers just because you can since they've asked you so many times and you're just trying to keep it interesting.  

I know some people do that as a way to cope, but I really don't recommend it, especially if your partner is really trying to put pieces together. Maybe they remember part of what you said, but not fully. So, by giving them all these different answers, it can cause a lot of confusion.

4. Short, vague answers, like, "Uh huh" "Sure" "Really?" "Okay."

You really want to avoid those vague answers, that kind of come off as if you're not listening. Because again, emotional memory lasts longer than event memory. So even though they might not remember asking you the question, they might remember how you made them feel. They might not be able to pinpoint what it was that you did, or what they did, but they can remember that they feel some type of way towards you. And, it could be because you're not listening.  

What May Be Triggering These Questions

So we know the big picture of what's causing them to ask the same question over and over — it's because they don't remember asking it. But, what is actually triggering them to ask that specific question? What could that be?  

It could be:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Discomfort
  • Fear
  • Genuine interest or concern
  • Boredom
  • Desire to connect

You want to keep these things in mind. When your partner is asking you a question, what is triggering that? Are they scared of something? Are they concerned about something? Are they anxious about something? Are they stressing about something? Do they seem bored? Do they seem like they're trying to reach out and connect? What is triggering this question?  

Top Tips: How to Deal with Repetitive Questions

1. Make sure you are listening.

I mean really listening, because sometimes when somebody asks us something, we're doing something else. Therefore, we might not be fully attending to what they actually asked us. And, with those who have dementia, what they're asking us may have some kind of underlying meaning. There might be something that we need to read in-between the lines. However, if we're not paying attention, we're going to miss some of those cues or some of that extra information that might help us give the appropriate response to the question.

2.  Make sure they're listening.

Remember, not only do they have a short-term memory deficit, but sometimes they have a shortened attention span, or they're easily distracted. Therefore what can happen is, as soon as they ask you the question, their attention can divert. So make sure that they're listening and make sure that they can hear you. Consider if they are wearing their hearing aids if they are hard of hearing. Because if they can't hear you, it doesn't matter what you say, right? It doesn't matter if you answered their question or not, because they didn't get that information.  

3. Answer the question, but also respond to the underlying feelings.

Like I mentioned before, there's usually something that is triggering this question. There's some type of unmet need. So, if you can figure that out, you can respond to the underlying feeling. Maybe they just need a hug. Maybe they just want you to sit down with them and spend some time with you. Maybe they want to help you do something, or maybe there's something that they really want to do. So, you want to respond to that underlying feeling. What do they need? What do they feel like they're missing?  

4. Repeat the question back to them.

So for example, if they asked you, "What time is it?" You would say, "You want to know what time it is?" And they'll say something like, "Yeah, what time is it?" And then, you would say, "The time is 11am or 11 o'clock, or 11 in the morning"... or whatever. But, you would repeat the question back to them to make sure you have an understanding of it. And then, you want to put part of the question into the answer. "You want to know what time it is? The time is 11 o'clock." That's the surest way to make sure they at least temporarily understand the answer that you gave them and that you understand that you're answering the right question. Because sometimes when they ask a question, they might misspeak. So they asked you one thing, but they were really intending to ask you something else. So, you repeating back to them their question gives them a chance to change it. So, maybe they didn't really want to know what time it is. Maybe they want it to know what day it is. Or maybe they want it to know something more specific, like what time is lunch. The point is, it gives them that opportunity to clarify for you and for you to make sure you're understanding the right question.  

5. Avoid reasoning and long winded explanations

You really just want to keep it short, simple, and clear to the point. So for example, if your partner asks you, "Did you feed the dog?" You don't want to say, "Yes, I fed the dog this morning when I first got up and I gave him water too." That's too much. Just keep it simple. If they ask you, "Did you feed the dog?" You say "You want to know if I fed the dog? "They're going to say something like, "Yes. Did you feed the dog?" You're going to say, "Yes, I already fed the dog." Period. You just want to keep it short and simple so you can make sure that they actually get the answer. Sometimes when you say too much, it's kind of like, "Okay, well, what was the answer to my question? I heard a lot of stuff. But was that yes or no? Are they going to do it? Did they already do it?" There just leaves more room for confusion. But if you're straight to the point — "Yes, I already fed the dog," or "Yes, I fed the dog this morning," it's more clear.  

6. Try to involve multiple senses.

If we can attach something to multiple senses, we're more likely to remember it.  

Our 5 main senses are:

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch

For example, maybe your partner wants to know, "Are the doors locked? So you could maybe say, "You want to know, if the doors are locked?" They would say "Yes. Are the doors locked?" You say, "Okay, let's go check." So maybe you walk over to the door together. You check the locks, you'd say. "Yes, the doors are locked," and point to the lock. That gives them auditory information and visual information because not only did you tell them, but you showed them. Then maybe you ask, "Can you open it?" They try to open it, they're feeling it. They can feel that the door is locked. And they'll say, "No, I can't open it." And you say, "Okay, good. The door is locked," which gives them confirmation. So, you gave them auditory information, visual information, and tactile information because they got to touch and manipulate it themselves. That may help them remember, "Oh, yeah, I checked, the door was locked." So then, they might not feel the need to keep asking you because they're able to recall with all those three components added, okay? So, just try it. See if it works.  

7. Ask a follow up question, or turn it into a full conversation.

Maybe your partner asks you, do you think it will rain today? And so you say to them, "You want to know if it will rain today? They say "Yeah, do you think it will rain today?" And you can say "I'm not sure. Do you want it to rain?" They might say, "Oh, no, I don't like when it rains, it makes me all stiff." And then, maybe you can just create a full blown conversation from that.  

Asking a follow up question gives you an opportunity to expand the question and also gives you an opportunity to expand the conversation and maybe find out more information that might help you give them a better answer. It may also help you meet one of those underlying feelings.

8. Distract with an activity.

This may be a good approach if your partner is asking you the same question back to back to back to back and you just need a break from all the question asking. You can try distracting them with an activity. You can try playing their favorite music in the background, or maybe you decide you want to even join in with them and dance. Maybe you can see if they'll be willing to match socks or fold clothes. Maybe they can help you with some chores. Maybe you guys can look through like a photo album together, things like that. But, something to take their attention away from whatever is triggering that question.  

9. Write the answer down.

Maybe you've already answered the question a few times, and they're still asking. You can try writing the answer down.  

You can use:

  • Poster board
  • Notepad
  • Sheet of paper
  • Whiteboard
  • Calendar

For example, maybe they're asking you what time is lunch and they're asking you over and over and over. Something you can do is write it down on a piece of paper. This is good method for people who are still able to see pretty well and they're able to read and understand what they're reading. You would post this note somewhere that they can see it. You want to make sure that you post it at eye level. You don't want to post it too high or too low because they might not see it. It might not be in their visual field. It also may help to put a digital clock next to it as well. Now, they can see that lunch is at 1pm and this is what time it is now. That may give them the cue that they need to stop asking you because they can see it and they can check.  

10. Be mindful of any triggers, and see if you can remove them.

Now, this might not always be possible, right? You might not always be able to remove the trigger, or you may not be able to even identify the trigger. It just might be something that internally is really bothering them and there's nothing externally triggering them.  

Examples of things to consider:

  • Have they been watching violent TV?
  • Is there something like maybe your deceased father's hat hanging on the coat rack?
  • Is there a photo hanging on the wall?
  • Are their keys sitting on the countertop?
  • Are they missing their wallet or jewelry?

See if you can identify any of the triggers and if you can see if you can remove them because it could be something as simple as, "out of sight out of mind."

11. Breathe

If you honestly feel like you can no longer hold your peace, please just first try to take a deep breath — in through the nose, out through the mouth. Answer the question as calmly and briefly as you can. And then, take the opportunity to remove yourself away from your partner. Get yourself back together.  Sometimes we just need a break. I really encourage you to try to avoid snapping, yelling, scolding, or pointing out that they've already asked you the question — it's really not helpful. It just makes them feel bad. They don't understand why you're so angry. They don't realize that they've asked you the question several times. Everybody is at a loss at that point. If you can try to keep your composure, take a step back, take a moment for yourself, and then come back when you can, that might be a better option.

Hopefully you found these tips helpful and of value. Of course, these tips may not prevent your partner from asking these questions, but my hope is that it will give you a better way of coping with the repetitive questions, especially understanding that they don't intend to. They're not doing it on purpose, and that it's really just due to brain failure.

Image Credit: freepik

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