Losing track of time – why do people with dementia struggle to tell the time?

When someone has dementia the parts of their brain used for telling the time begin to deteriorate and eventually stop functioning.

When they look at a clock face they might not be able to understand what the hands are pointing at, and they may easily lose track of what time of day it is – often confusing night with day, or even what month or season it is. 

Losing sense of time inevitably leads to confusion, and this in turn can lead to anxiety, challenging behaviour, anger and even loss of self.

What are the problems associated with losing track of time?

The “Clock Test” is often used by Doctors to determine early signs of dementia. They will draw a circle and ask the patient to add the numbers as the face of the clock, and then draw the hands as a particular time.

Generally a person with dementia, especially Alzheimer’s, will be unable to do this. The part of the brain that enables this kind of reasoning is damaged. They will no longer be able to read the face of a clock or understand the positioning of the hands, and therefore will not be able to tell what time it is.

Memory problems also make it likely that they will forget what day it is, or even what month or season, leading to confusion about what they should be doing, where they need to be, or even what they should wear.

This level of confusion can lead to repetitive or clingy behaviour.The person with dementia will have no sense of the passage of time, so they might think you haven’t visited for days, or if you pop out for 15/20 minutes they might believe you’ve been out all day.

 They might end up ringing you up constantly to ask what time it is, or worse still, they might end up believing you have abandoned them and are never coming back, or “are up to something”. 

How to deal with difficulties with telling the time 

Understanding the problem and the underlying anxiety can help you develop a sympathetic and reassuring response. How you deal with the problem though will depend on what stage of dementia your loved one is at.

In the initial stages of dementia a clock or watch with a digital display, rather than a traditional clock face, may help. Later, as their symptoms develop, a day clock that simply states the day and what part of the day – morning, afternoon, evening and night – would be more appropriate, as might a talking clock that can also provide verbal reminders.

Establishing a solid routine that you stick to every day can also help bring a sense of time and order to each day which can provide stability and reassurance.

Northfield House is a specialist provider of dementia care in Stroud.
We pride ourselves on our warm welcoming atmosphere so please give us a ring on 01453 488060  to arrange a visit.