Paper Scatter, A Sign of Dementia

I got my organizing gene from my mom. She was highly organized and ran a tight ship when I was growing up. Not only was I blessed with her organizing gene, but I also had a skilled model for getting and staying organized. She was always restoring order in our home where I lived with my parents and two brothers.

So, when I started noticing miscellaneous papers floating over the tops of three counters in her kitchen as well as her desk, I was at first curious, then alarmed. Something had changed. And, it wasn’t the quantity or type of paper that flowed into Mom’s house. When my step-father’s health declined and he eventually died, I finally felt I had permission to closely examine all those papers. Mom needed my help to manage her finances because her focus was on her husband and, I later discovered, because she really was not cognitively capable of doing so herself.

I had noticed my mother’s significant short term memory problems for some time, but I tried to explain it away as normal aging. My step-father’s health crisis made it very clear that Mom has dementia. During that difficult time she exhibited significant confusion, and it was obvious that she was unable to make decisions, cope in new environments and learn new things. The sea of papers was the most visible symptom of her cognitive decline in her home. Changes in her brain made it more and more difficult for her to make decisions about what to do with incoming mail and my step-father’s medical papers. Her way of not handling her papers was to drop them on an empty counter. Then she would look at them over and over again.

Mom’s sea of papers reminded me of what I so often find in the homes of clients who hire me to help them make peace with their papers, particularly those with ADHD. It is well known that those who have ADHD often have frontal lobe deficits. The frontal lobe is the area of the brain responsible for executive functions like short-term memory, decision-making and prioritization. I am guessing that Mom’s dementia has been affecting her frontal lobe for some time.

If you have always had difficulty managing paper, don’t leap to the conclusion that you have dementia. I share this information with you because you may know someone like my Mom who once was very competent at managing papers but who with age has become less capable of paper management. It could be an early sign of dementia. It’s easier to be helpful and loving with a person who is having difficulty with the details of life if you have some idea of a possible cause of the decline. Changes from previous levels of functioning are information you can use to determine the best way to be helpful to a beloved family member.

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