Dementia and the Terror of De-cluttering      


De-cluttering can be a necessary but painful process. When I was a teenager I was given the job of de-cluttering my Grandma’s small cottage; a task that had to be completed regularly to avoid losing her completely amongst the piles of newspapers, half empty milk bottles, and jumble sale clothes that she regularly accumulated and that encouraged cockroaches and rats. It was better I did the job than my mother, whose empathy and patience had worn thin and who would throw out bagfuls of Grandma’s ‘stuff’ without taking the time to go through it with her item by item, like I did.

Whilst sorting through overfull drawers in Grandma’s tiny sitting room, I came across burial certificates for the six children she had lost in infancy. We didn’t talk much about them; she had realised as a young woman that people thought the best way to get over such tragedy was to move on and try to forget. Now in her eighties it was a difficult lesson to unlearn. Looking back, the hoarding that was such a problem for those around her, was probably just a reaction to such painful and unacknowledged loss.

This week at Pictures to Share we have also been forced into de-cluttering. But this clutter is caused not by deep emotional trauma, but by modern technology. We’ve expanded into additional office space upstairs and as part of this our IT systems are being upgraded and rationalized. Our IT man left promptly at 5pm tonight to go to a piano lesson, leaving my Mac emptying its trash. I sat and watched as it counted up the items it was about to irretrievably delete. It reached 300,000 and I must admit that I panicked! I stopped the process certain that in those 300,000 files there MUST be things that I needed. Our IT expert will have to come back tomorrow and restart the whole lengthy process.

Dementia in some ways seems to be a bit like a frightening and enforced de-cluttering of the brain. A sort of random throwing away of memories and abilities, some of which we don’t particularly miss, but most that we would really much prefer to keep. In the later stages of dementia when the de-cluttering has taken almost everything, we are left with perhaps the essence of who we are; with our emotional and immediate responses to the here and now, rather than the rational and considered behaviour that our family and friends would recognize. If we have forgotten our husband or children, or can no longer remember most of the details of our past lives, we exist very much in the present. But like a de-cluttered house or hard drive, this can maybe bring its own kind of freedom.

They say that people with dementia can develop a new interest in the creative arts. Once they are freed from the inhibitions of behaving in a ‘responsible’ and ‘adult’ way, many people are able to explore and enjoy the more playful aspects of their personality. So maybe we should try to focus less on lost abilities and memories, and instead look for ways we can help people to live a happier life in the here and now.  Perhaps then many people with dementia will enjoy a better quality of life in their final years.

Helen  J Bate

24th June 2013