Strategies for Understanding and Managing Unwanted Behaviors: Wandering, Rummaging, Hoarding, and Packing


November 3, 2023

Strategies For Understanding And Managing Unwanted Behaviors

It’s important to interpret your loved one’s unwanted behaviors as forms of non-verbal communication. These behaviors are often their way of coping and reacting with the abilities they still possess. In this post, we will delve deeper into four specific behaviors: wandering, rummaging, hoarding, and packing. We’ll explore their triggers, warning signs, and potential interventions. Keep in mind that how you respond to these behaviors can significantly impact the situation.

Common Risk Factors for Unwanted Behaviors:

  1. Being in a new or changed environment: Such as moving away from home, hospital visits, encounters with people wearing masks, or dining in empty restaurants.
  2. Undiagnosed pain: Examples include headaches, toothaches, blisters, or arthritis flare-ups.
  3. Physical problems: Including shortness of breath, urinary tract infections, or side effects from medication.
  4. Boredom or loneliness
  5. Negative interactions: Such as being approached by someone with a negative attitude or mirroring others’ moods.
  6. Sundowning: A routine increase in agitation in late afternoon.
  7. Being treated like a child: This can lead to frustration.
  8. Lack of emotional control and impulse control


59% of individuals with Alzheimer’s or related dementias will wander, often close to home. This behavior should not be underestimated as 46% may face life-threatening situations if not found within 24 hours. In such cases, consider enrolling in a wandering response service, such as MedicAlert with Wandering Support. Additionally, you can take these actions:

  • Search the area where the person was last seen.
  • Contact the police and inform them of the memory impairment and risk.
  • Provide a recent photo and description of what they were wearing.
  • Mobilize friends and family to search while you remain by the phone.
  • Contact hospital emergency rooms.
  • When your loved one is found, update the police and MedicAlert if enrolled.

To prevent future wandering, you can:

  • Understand the underlying reasons for the wandering/pacing.
  • Assist the person in finding their room, dining room, or bathroom as needed.
  • Redirect them to another room or area of the house.
  • Offer frequent snacks, finger foods, and fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Encourage participation in activities to alleviate restlessness or boredom.
  • If safe, allow them to wander in a controlled environment when they are agitated.


Rummaging serves as a coping mechanism when speech and comprehension skills decline. People with dementia may rummage when they are hungry but unable to express it. To address rummaging:

  • Identify why they are rummaging and ensure their basic needs are met.
  • Provide meaningful and familiar activities, such as cleaning countertops or setting the table.
  • Place rummage boxes in areas they frequent, filled with safe items or sensory objects.


People with dementia often collect various items, from food and paper products, to small objects like stones, flowers, or socks. While these collections may be extensive, avoid taking objects away unless they are dangerous. Check for items when the person is asleep and remove them.


Individuals with dementia may have an impulse to pack bags and “go home.” To address this behavior:

  • Remove triggers that suggest it is time to leave.
  • Keep cars out of sightlines when outside.
  • If they have packed bags, unpack them while they are asleep.
  • If they are set on leaving immediately, distract or go along with them to reset their mind.

For all unwanted behaviors:

  • Avoid arguments.
  • Offer reassurances.
  • Provide favorite snacks, drinks, and other distractions.
  • Modify the environment to reduce stimulation.
  • Be mindful of body language, tone of voice, emotions, and facial expressions.
  • Validate their emotions and meet them in their world.
  • Take care of yourself.

Remember, all behavior has a purpose. While we can’t change the person, we can identify their unmet needs and make accommodations.

Source: James L. West Center for Dementia Care

We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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