Possible to be TOO organized?

karinlMay 5, 2010

I have spent the last three weeks working almost daily with my MIL to deal with her bedbug infestation, which occurred through no fault of hers but still has to be dealt with.

It's been interesting, to say the least. My MIL has always been an almost pathologically organized and tidy person, and she is currently getting a little confused - she's had a couple of fairly quiet years as her family is widely distributed, and has no social initiative - won't visit seniors' programs etc. So she's pretty much been holed up in her perfectly organized apartment for a long time, barring outings to the same stores and services for the same things.

Her confusion was getting to be problematic when I started working with her. After 3 weeks of almost daily interaction with me, and dealing with the almost complete upheaval of her apartment (we spared the kitchen), she is way better. I theorize that her life was so perfectly organized and repetitive that she was giving herself zero mental stimulation in the course of her days. She never had to fire a single neuron to find anything, because she puts it away almost before she's finished using it - nothing is ever out of place.

There is a lot of negative press on this board about the evils of hoarding, and certainly, those are somewhat self-evident and reflect definite psychological issues.

But I think the other extreme is not much healthier, if at all. Actually, I'm not even sure it is a continuum, because one can hoard and still be very organized. In any event, I'm posting to float the thought that the clutter we are all fighting might actually be an intellectual stimulus on some level, especially if it moves around from time to time making us have to remember where things are and track changes we've made.

Just as house cleaning is not much physical exercise, dealing with clutter may not be much mental exercise. But when it's all you've got, maybe it's nothing to sneeze at.


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I've been trying to help my parents toss out some stuff and be better organized. They get frustrated when they can't find things. I don't see how that frustration is good for them.

People, in general, do not like change. The older we get the more we like to keep things to stay the same. Plus there are a lot better ways to get mental stimulus that hiding granny's teeth, so to speak ;)

Living in an organized space without excess stuff all over the place frees our minds for other things.

Those of us who can find the antacid in the dark prefer it over having to turn on the lights and rummage around for 15 minutes trying to find the antacid only to discover it expired 9 months ago. :)

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 8:04AM
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I understand what karinl is saying. Sometimes I feel the same way. Clutter adds details. Those details add interest.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 1:57PM
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For me clutter adds personality. Yes, I can find the antacid in the dark, but it is comforting to me to be able to look at things that belonged to my parents and other family members..those items that would be considered clutter to an overly organized person.
I went all that way to say the same thing y'all have said much better :^)

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 2:36PM
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I'm a true disorganized slob sister. My youngest sis is my total opposite. I went to her home for breakfast, asked if she'd seen the morning paper, she said she had but it was now out in her garage in the recycling box. Whoa!

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 3:03PM
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I suspect it is the people-interaction that is stimulating her and maybe treating a degree of depression, not the fun of tearing up her abode.

You would have to run a controlled experiment in which you visited and interacted but everything still stayed neat and organized !

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 4:38PM
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My sister and I are complete opposites in this area. I can live with clutter and dust. She, however, lives with a rag in her hand at all times. Her house always looks like a show home; it doesn't matter what time of day it is. Once a week, she'll even move all the furniture to vacuum under each piece.

But she says that she wishes she could be more like me. It is definitely obsessive behavior on her part. To be honest, though, I wish I could be more like her.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 7:54PM
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There is a middle ground. It's somewhere between a mess and walking around with rag. :)

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 11:08PM
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Maybe your MIL has a bit of dementia and the upset is confusing her, not the fact of organized versus not organized.

When one has dementia it is important to avoid change and keep things organized. Imagine if you had trouble remembering and you go to get something in it's usual place and it's not there. You too would be confused. Cut the old lady some slack and put yourself in her shoes before you go critisizing her way of living

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 11:04AM
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My MIL was super concerned woth cleanliness and order. I remember I once dropped an ice cube out of a dish onto her dining room rug. Instead of picking up the ice cube and maybe dabbing the spot with a paper towel, she grabbed a can of spray rug cleaner and went over the area where it landed. There was no trace of any stain , of course. By the way, after she died her house was so clean and everything in working order, that it went on the market and sold in ONE DAY. So there are benefits to being super-organized.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 3:07PM
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Being that organized may be her way of anchoring herself to a structured environment that she can control. It's not about decorating as much as it's about having something to order where her little world is safe, as being changed or messed (by others) is scary as she would lose control of her very own environment and not know where things are - kind of a survival thing where she can keep track of it all.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 7:52AM
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Oilpainter, my MIL absolutely has some measure of dementia. But I've known her for 30 years and know that she has always been like this. We used to bring our first-born over to see her for Sunday brunch most weeks, and our child loved her Grandma and always wanted to play with her after we left the table. But Grandma - who was retired, had no other commitments - always had to do the dishes first, and by the time the kitchen was done, so was our toddler, and it was time to head home. That's what I mean by pathological - order before people.

Because she always did everything right away, she never had a to-do list to stay on top of, never had to remember where she might have left X when it wasn't where it should be, No unnecessary mental strain, in other words, where my brain feels like it's breaking some days trying to keep track of what I'm doing and where everything is. Time will tell whether my brain holds up better than hers or not!

The condition I'm trying to articulate is not just order, it isn't decor, and it certainly isn't cleanliness - once things are in place she doesn't move them to clean behind, for example. What I think it is is a condition of perpetual sameness, day in and day out, where your environment offers no challenge at all and there are no decisions to make. Nothing new comes in, nothing old goes out.

At least in a messy, disorganized house, I have to attack one part or another from time to time, and when I do I always make new decisions about how to organize and decorate it, so things are constantly changing.


    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 12:41PM
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Karin, don't you think that there are better ways to engage your brain than trying to keep track of where everything is located? If your home is orderly, your mind will be free to pursue more enjoyable activities. It also should be mentioned that the stress of not living in a chaotic environment is better for our overall health.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 6:45PM
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It sounds like compulsive behavior to me, which I'm sure is probably unpleasant for her. Order and organization should free you up, not tie you down.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 7:31PM
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There is much written these days about mental exercise. That sounds to me like "blaming the victim." We don't blame cancer patients for getting cancer (well, maybe lung cancer in smokers, and even that is wrong), yet we tend to think that people with mental disorders or dementia have it because they are not stimulating themselves enough - do crossword puzzles, join a club! If that were the case, my mother would not be suffering from it right now. She is a brilliant woman who had a career she loved. Around 80 she became forgetful and now suffers from severe short-term memory loss, but there is not one historical fact that has escaped her memory. That she cannot remember current events is certainly not her fault....she doesn't even realize she doesn't remember them.

I think your MIL can be compulsively organized and still not keep anything clean. I also think that if one suffers from dementia (does your MIL have a diagnosis?) that letting her keep her routines is enormously important, no matter what else happens in her life. It is not lack of mental stimulation that causes dementia, it is dementia that causes the inability to be mentally stimulated. One can be bored silly but not have dementia. Your MIL's ability to remain independent in her own apartment depends upon sameness and routine.

Personality doesn't usually change with dementia. Your MIL has apparently always had social issues and still does. Don't blame her for not being mentally stimulated. If she suffers from dementia, she cannot help it.

It is heartbreaking to see a parent go through this. All I can suggest to you is try to keep loving her, helping her, being kind to her. Her doctor may suggest a gerontologist and meds to help. The longer she can remain independent, the better for all of you. If that means she lives a life of sameness, so be it. It sounds like she has always lived this way, anyway.


    Bookmark   May 11, 2010 at 10:06AM
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Another story about my obsessively clean and orderly MIL. I dropped by her house one day-it was very near the place I worked. She offered me a fresh piece of blueberry pie. In the meantime, FIL had gone out for a walk. She received a call that FIL had tripped and fallen and his head was bleeding. I jumped up "Let's go get him" and she objected. "No, I have to clean the table and do the dishes first." Freaky,huh?

    Bookmark   May 11, 2010 at 10:20AM
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Interesting theory, KarinL, but I don't think it is true. I would argue that there is more mental stimulation in the act of keeping things in order than in living in disorder and having to search for items.

Jannie, that's scarey. What did you end up doing? Washing dishes or going to aid your FIL?

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 12:25AM
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Why are some of you jumping on Karin's back?
She's just trying to figure out what's behind the situation and throwing a theory out there, and you accuse her of criticizing and basically not being understanding?
"Blaming the victim"? Geez...
Read her post again: She's trying to UNDERSTAND her MIL.
And you are dead wrong: Personality CAN change when someone has dementia, esp. the early stage. You think you'd be the same person the first time you can't remember the route back to your home?

    Bookmark   May 18, 2010 at 11:27AM
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Pammyfay, I believe you have completely misunderstood the responses. Sherrmann's point about "blaming the victim" was not directed at the OP, but rather was a general statement that when we, society, see someone in dis-ease, distress or decline, we look for reasons within them for the problem, when in truth the disease would have occurred regardless of the person's actions.

What we are telling KarinL is that her mom's severe case of being organized all her life did not cause her dementia. And if I read your post correctly, you seem to feel the same way. Interesting theory, though.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2010 at 8:37PM
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Yes, thank you, graywings, that is what I meant.


    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 11:53AM
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