5 reasons they sleep or watch TV all day

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Do you often ask your loved one or residents living with dementia if they “want” to do something…and get turned down?

I’ve met a lot of caregivers who make the assumption that their loved ones living with dementia “don’t like to do anything.”

“No, she just likes to watch TV and sleep all day,” Marie told me. “My mom was always really active…but I guess with her dementia she just doesn’t want to do the things she used to do.”

This really wasn’t true: Marie’s mom, Barbara, did want and like to do things, but she just didn’t realize that she had an option.

If you ask someone with dementia if they “want to” do something, you’re probably going to get a “no.” That “no” is most likely because your loved one didn’t understand the question, not because they actually dislike doing activities.

Here are a few reasons why people living with dementia will sit in front of the TV all day:

  1. They don’t realize that there’s anything else to do. People living with dementia have a hard time taking “initiative” to start a new task: you know this if you’ve ever watched someone transition from brushing their teeth to combing their hair. Starting a new task can be confusing if you aren’t sure of the steps. Just like this, your loved one didn’t realize that there was anything else to do besides watch TV, and they wouldn’t know how to start doing it, either.
  2. They are worried they’ll “do it wrong” if they attempt something new. No one wants to feel stupid, look silly, or seem incompetent. If what you were asking was too complicated, try breaking it down into steps. “First, we are going to paint this birdhouse together.” When it’s done, explain the next step. “Now, we are going to put it outside and sprinkle some birdseed!”
  3. They didn’t understand what you were asking. If you asked someone if they “wanted” to do something, you probably got a “no thanks.” Instead, ask them FOR HELP with the task. I can’t stress this enough: do not ask if they “want to help you” but instead ask, “CAN YOU HELP ME with….” Make them feel necessary and important to the task. You can also just offer a hand. “Here, come with me,” you say.
  4. You were asking them to do something that was too difficult or confusing. Like in number two, break it down into steps. Make it seem like you need them to help you with it.
  5. They are depressed. Depression and dementia often go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, depression is often quite treatable with the right medication and behavioral interventions like exercise and social activities. Ensure that a physician checks into your loved one’s potential depression.
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10 thoughts on “5 reasons they sleep or watch TV all day”

  1. Michelle Tristani

    Once again Rachael you have answered an important question so insightfully!!! Thanks so much for your help and wisdom!

  2. So true. “No” is the new yes. If I ask my husband if he wants a sandwich or something to drink, he’ll say no. But if I place the sandwich in his hands, he’ll eat it. I’m pretty sure he just doesn’t understand the question.

    Thank you Rachael, very much

  3. My mom is 79 w/LBD. She has started ‘sleeping’ really late–quotes bc I’m not sure she is actually sleeping, but the tv isn’t on and her eyes are closed. Late as in 12, 1, 2 and today it’s 4 p.m. Part of me thinks ‘she’s 79, leave her alone!’ And the other part of me feels like I am failing her miserably.
    I telework, so am I to get her up at 10 for breakfast and then say ‘see ya–I have to go into the home office and continue to work’. She can piddle a bit and clean up the kitchen, but then that’s it.
    I’ve gently mentioned laying in bed all day is not good and will cause her to get weak. I’ve gently mentioned I can’t push, pull, tug, lift or drag her.
    I’ve gently mentioned folks in nursing homes are made to get up and stay up all day. (I don’t know this for sure.)
    As I type this, I think I’m doing it all wrong. But I really don’t know what is right for HER. She is all I have and I am at a loss on how to motivate her to want to get up when there is nothing she enjoys. I am failing at bringing any joy into her days.

  4. So true. I battle with people who I know are trying to be helpful with try something new, take him to the beach, take him to a new coffee shop. If you haven’t lived dementia, you have no idea. Like I cannot comment on cancer.

  5. just what I needed to read today (seriously). mother-in-law was pretty okay Alzheimer’s, then a fall and repeated lung problems spent, spent 45 days in hospital (and there’s no post-hosp rehab step down here in Brazil), and she’s home, oxygen 24 hours, 4-5 diapers a day, 161 (!) pills a week, etc etc. greatly worried about her mental health with so many problems, this article helps!

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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