Is compulsive behavior common in people with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, many aspects of his or her life are forced to change and will continually change throughout the disease journey.

Fear and anxiety often erupt, with a strong desire on the part of the individual to maintain consistency and routine in his or her life as things become increasingly unfamiliar. Through this fear and anxiety, obsessive behaviors can be born.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Look for these signs: Is the person constantly rearranging and sorting things? Is he/she habitually hiding things or hoarding? Do they constantly check doors and windows? Do they constantly want to go to the bathroom or wash their hands continuously? Do they pick at their skin? Do they constantly pace?

They may engage in this type of behavior out of boredom or excess energy. As the disease progresses, the individual is less likely able to do the things he or she once did and now has fewer activities to fill the day. So it’s important to maintain structured routines and plan meaningful and purposeful activities that they enjoy.

In specific dementias, such as Frontotemporal dementia, Huntington’s disease or progressive supranuclear palsy, people often display compulsive tendencies, such as extreme hand washing or pacing from one area to another. They have a need to carry out these repeated actions.

It is difficult to break such a cycle, and the caregiver must decide whether it is just annoying or it is significant enough (safety concerns) to intervene. If the behaviors are harmless, accept it and move on to other things.

If the compulsive behaviors interfere with safety or are causing the individual to be in great distress, then the caregiver should distract with an activity and offer continual reassurance.

If the behaviors become extreme, a physician should be consulted for an appropriate plan of care.

Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia disorder? Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, Director of Services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494, advice@alzbr.org, or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.