Posted: January 13, 2021

Helping a Parent Living with Dementia Declutter and Organize

For older adults living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, staying on top of the tasks of daily living can be challenging. Looking for important documents, misplacing valuable possessions, and forgetting where commonly used items are located can increase confusion and anxiety. Helping a parent living with dementia declutter and organize their space can reduce stress, improve safety, and make daily life easier for everyone.

Benefits of Living in an Organized Space

It can be difficult for individuals living with dementia to make sense of their environment and process information if their living space is cluttered and disorganized. Your parent or loved one might not complain about clutter, they may even seem to find comfort from having stacks of paper or boxes of their belongings scattered about, but this ‘visual noise’ can create overstimulation and make it difficult for them to focus on basic tasks like cooking, cleaning, and personal hygiene.

Eliminating clutter and organizing belongings so they are easy to find (and reach) is a way to support older adults so they can live more efficiently and independently. Sometimes this means downsizing the number of items, like reducing the number of coffee cups or note pads to choose from, or perhaps downsizing their living space.

Understanding Rummaging, Hiding, and Hoarding Behaviors

Creating systems for storing important documents and medications can reduce the need for your loved one to search closets and boxes for needed items. However, some seniors living with dementia may still repeatedly dig through drawers and search cabinets or closets. Sorting and reorganizing items can help seniors feel useful and asking them to stop can cause them to become increasingly agitated.

In the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s, hoarding can also take place which may stem from a desire to have some control over the environment. Some seniors may move items from one place to another, and then forget where they placed them, or they may hide items they think others might steal. This can be frustrating for caregivers. Read more from the Alzheimer’s Association on rummaging, hiding, and hoarding behaviors here.

Creating a Dementia-Safe Space

Rather than trying to change the behaviors of someone living with dementia, it is more effective to change their surroundings in order to create a dementia-safe space. This means removing potentially hazardous items or storing them in a locked cabinet. Make copies of important documents, keeping the originals with you, but giving your loved one copies so they have access as well. Keep medications organized or locked up if necessary.

Because Alzheimer’s, as well as normal aging, can affect vision, it is important to make sure walkways are clear and well lit. Piles of possessions can create tripping hazards and also make it difficult for emergency personnel to gain access in case of an accident. Remove locks from the inside of doors to prevent your loved ones from locking themselves in a room. Wandering, or elopement is a critical concern for family members and caregivers of older adults living with Alzheimer’s. Installing alarms that notify you when a door is opened can give you peace of mind. Download a complete home safety checklist from the Alzheimer’s Association here.

Tips for Decluttering and Organizing

It is important to approach organizing and decluttering your parent’s space from a posture of kindness. Take it slow, listen to what they have to say, and give them ownership over the process. Let them know you are there to support them. If they are not ready to part with something or organize it in the way you think it should be done, let it go and try another time. This is not an easy task. Here are a few practical tips that will help make the process easier:

• Go slow and set priorities with your parent. Is it to keep them safe and happy? Help them understand that they are taking action to improve their daily life.
• Set small goals. Tackle one closet, or one category of possessions at a time. Start with the most frequently used spaces or items.
• Decide what you will keep, give away, discard, or store elsewhere.
• For sentimental or valuable items that you give away or store elsewhere, consider taking a photo of each item and make a book with notes as to where the item is so you can show your parent if they ask about it.
• Buy clear storage containers that you will keep so they can easily see what is inside. Label everything so it is easy to find.
• It may feel disorienting to have their belongings arranged in an unfamiliar way. Reassure your loved one that this is normal.

It is possible, after all of your patient and loving support, that your parent will decide to rearrange everything the next day. Don’t take it personally. Do your best to maintain your patience and sense of humor.

Helping a parent living with dementia stay on top of daily life, live organized, and maintain a sense of independence is important. At some point, your loved one may require more assistance than you alone are unable to give. Having things organized beforehand will help ease the transition to hiring a home care professional or making the move to a memory care community.

At Walnut Crossing, we view dementia as a whole community disease. Our Rhythms Dementia Philosophy and Program centers around learning each person’s natural rhythm of life and adapting our services and environment to meet their personal needs.

Read more about knowing when your parent might be ready for memory care here.

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