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Does Clutter Help with Dementia?

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A clutter-free environment may not help people with dementia carry out daily tasks - according to a new study from the University of East Anglia.
December 24, 2021

Does lack of clutter help with dementia? Researchers in Great Britain looked at whether people with dementia were better able to carry out tasks, such as making a cup of tea, at home surrounded by their usual clutter or in a clutter-free environment. The researchers were surprised to find that participants with moderate dementia performed better when surrounded by their usual clutter.

News Medical Life Sciences’ recent article entitled “People with dementia may not benefit from a clutter-free environment” also noted that the different environments made no difference to those with mild and severe dementia. These patients were able to perform at the same level in both settings.

Professor Eneida Mioshi, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Health Sciences, said: "The majority of people with dementia live in their own home and usually want to remain living at home for as long as possible. So it's really important to know how people with dementia can be best supported at home - one possible route would be by adapting the physical environment to best suit their needs.”

He also noted that as dementia progresses, seniors will gradually lose their ability to carry out daily tasks due to changes in their cognitive, perceptual and physical abilities. The professor went on to say that participation in daily tasks could then be improved, by adapting the individual’s environment.

"To this end, we wanted to investigate the role of clutter in activity participation, given the potential to use de-cluttering to support people with dementia to continue to be independent,” Professor Mioshi explained. "Environmental clutter has been defined as the presence of an excessive number of objects on a surface or the presence of items that are not required for a task.”

Mioshi also said it’s generally assumed that an individual suffering from dementia will be better-able to carry out daily tasks, when their home space is tidy and clutter free. However, he noted that there’s been very little research on this hypothesis.

Occupational therapist and PhD student Julieta Camino carried out the study with 65 participants who were grouped into those with mild, moderate and severe dementia. The participants were asked to carry out daily tasks, including making a cup of tea and making a simple meal, both at their own home and at UEA's specially designed NEAT research bungalow - a fully furnished research facility that feels just like a domestic living space.

The researchers looked at their performance of activities in both settings, and also measured the amount of clutter in the participants' homes. The NEAT home setting, however, was completely clutter free. They believed the complete absence of clutter in the research facility would play a beneficial role in helping people with dementia with daily living activities. However, we were wrong. Overall, those with moderate dementia, in particular, performed daily tasks better at home, despite the fact their homes were much more cluttered than the research bungalow.

Moreover, it didn't seem to make any difference how cluttered the participant's home was. The only factor that contributed to how well they could carry out tasks at home was their level of cognition - with those with severe dementia encountering the same difficulties to perform the tasks at home and in the research facility.

Sian Gregory, Research Information Manager at Alzheimer's Society, said: "We can sometimes make assumptions about what might help someone with dementia who's living at home, like de-cluttering so they can concentrate on tasks like making a cup of tea. But, as this study shows, our ideas might not always be right.

"Challenging assumptions is so important for careers to understand how to help someone with dementia to live well in their environment. That's why the Alzheimer's Society funds a variety of studies like this one to evaluate what actually works for people living with dementia today, as well as finding treatments for the future."

Reference: News Medical Life Sciences (Nov. 26, 2021) “People with dementia may not benefit from a clutter-free environment”

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