Labeling drawers and cabinets can help people with Alzheimer’s disease remember where items are located. Successful implementation is dependent on several factors:
1. Introduce labels in the early stage, while language is still useful and while habits can still be learned… and expect some resistance.
Sometimes caregivers face challenges in the early stages that have less to do with self care and more to do with personality. Sometimes a person with Alzheimer’s is not aware that the environment is cluttered, and that it takes him or her an excessive length of time to get dressed or cleaned up. They might not be aware that they get easily sidetracked while looking for something, or tend to blame others when something is missing. This is the disease talking. So if a caregiver starts to make some changes that could really simplify the environment, there may be some backlash. The caregiver may be perceived as fixing something that isn’t broken.
But labeling drawers and cabinets, and some simple decluttering, may really help increase independence and build habits that can support that independence long into the disease. So try to introduce the concept early in the disease process.
Remember, someone with early stage Alzheimer’s thinks nothing is wrong with them. So make it about you. Call it “spring cleaning” or a simple method that will help you tidy up better for them. If you wait for permission, it will never come. Assure the person that if he or she doesn’t like it, you will remove it. You can even have an outsider do it and remove yourself (the caregiver) from the process.
2. Engage the person in the actual hands-on process if possible.
The act of writing the labels and placing each object into the correct location utilizes procedural memory. Motor (procedural) memory will help solidify the recent changes utilizing a lesser affected part of the brain. Talk about each object. Show the association between the label and the object. Make it a game, a scavenger hunt. Repetition breeds performance.
3. Be consistent.
If socks have always been located in the top drawer, then try not to relocate and label them in the second drawer. If moving to a new living situation, try to arrange things exactly how they had been at home. Try to keep colors consistent for personal care items like toothbrushes and combs. When replacing toothbrushes, brushes, combs… try to buy the same colors each time. There may come a time when a person is moved into an aggregate living environment where their things may become commingled among a roommate’s supplies. Having a habit of always reaching for the blue toothbrush or being able to locate the same familiar pink comb helps facilitate successes down the road.
4. Labels should be large and simple.
No need to list every item on the label, but be careful not to use categories are too broad. Choose common words like “SOCKS”, “UNDERWEAR”, “HAIR CARE”. Using words like “ORAL HYGIENE” is not as simple as “TEETH”.
5. Labels are only as effective as the items contained within.
Clutter, choices, excess… successful labeling depends on a simple environment. People with dementia are easily overwhelmed and paralyzed by clutter, sometimes to the point that they no longer can determine what is valuable and what is not… and then nothing gets thrown out. Get rid of extra stuff that’s not used on a regular basis. Keep countertops clear except for the things used on a daily basis (toothbrush, razor, comb). Throw out unused cosmetics. Remove medicines and cleaning supplies from the bathroom. If there is resistance to decluterring, compromise by putting treasures they can’t part with in one container and label it “Miscellaneous”. By isolating the miscellaneous items, you will help the person to stay more focused on basic self care tasks with less distraction. Equip them with the best shower filter and do everything to make the shower safe and simple, cleanliness can be an issue with some people and making it the most appealing to them as possible is the mission.
Got an organizational/labeling success you’d like to share? Please do! Email a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org.