by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA

Q: My wife stays in her room all day, sorting clothes and rearranging her drawers. Is there something I can do to provide more activities for her? She just seems to get agitated if I try to get her to stop.

A: Often when sorting and rummaging behaviors are displayed, there is some type of brain or memory impairment involved. If your wife has not yet been evaluated by a medical professional, I would suggest you begin there. If she has some form of dementia diagnosis, this is not uncommon behavior. It may be a sign that she is experiencing increased stress or anxiety. She may be constantly rearranging her drawers to reassure herself that her things are still there or because she is having trouble remembering where her things are. She may also be hiding other items in the drawers, or hoarding things to help her gain a sense of control. 

When you notice these behaviors, you can certainly try to offer other activities or redirect her, but if rearranging the drawers is making her happy and it is not harmful to her or others, then it is also okay to let her continue. It is certainly not something you want to argue with her about or ask her to explain, as this will likely trigger the agitation. 

Here are a few things you might try:

  • Offer to help her label the drawers so she knows where her belongings go
  • Ask her if she can help sort and fold other laundry, towels or socks
  • Come up with a list of other activities she is still able to manage, like setting the table or watering plants and suggest she try one of those
  • Offer some type of physical activity, to help her burn off any excess energy. You could go for a walk together, ride a stationary bike or just get outdoors for some fresh air
  • If there are any items that are sharp or potentially harmful, go ahead and remove those
  • Find a game you can both play together, like cards or dominos
  • Help her find ways she can feel productive, like volunteering together, helping with meals, or taking care of a small garden
  • Try playing soft or familiar music that may help her to relax
  • If she seems to enjoy sorting, they make items you can order online to sort into different containers; local craft or teaching supply stores may have items as well. Just make sure you don’t give her anything that could be a choking hazard

Find ways to help keep her hands occupied that don’t require short term memory. Depending on her diagnosis and where she is at in the journey, an adult day or senior enrichment center may offer appropriate activities as well. Reach out to local support groups or other people who might be dealing with similar issues and share ideas. Keep in mind, what works one day or moment, may not work the next, so be patient with her and make sure you both have the support you need.

Readers may send questions to Amy Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at amyn@agingoutreachservices.com .