3 Kinds of Trash Can Confusion People With Dementia May Develop

Strange as it sounds, sometimes people with dementia forget the purpose of a trash can. This can result in three different, vexing behaviors. Here's how to cope.

Trash mistake #1: Rummaging

Your loved one may rummage through the trash routinely, especially if prone to rummaging behavior generally (going through a desk, a drawer, or papers, for example). The reason seems to be that some people simply find it satisfying to dig through things -- it's a tactile, repetitive activity.

Solution: Relocate an open trash bin to behind a cupboard door -- possibly closed with a child safety latch. Secure outdoor trash containers with bungee cords. You might also substitute a "junk drawer" of things like tool parts or sewing notions for safer rummaging.

Trash mistake #2: Storing or hiding

Your loved one may decide the trash is a good place to store (or hide) important things -- the trouble is that nobody else knows, and/or your loved one forgets, and the items are lost forever.

Solution: If your loved one likes to hide or "file" objects like mail, keys, TV remotes, glasses, and so on, develop the habit of making a quick garbage check before you set out trash for pickup.

Trash mistake #3: Wastebasket as urinal

Men with dementia sometimes use the trash container in place of a commode, especially if they have a problem such as urge incontinence that makes them need to urinate quickly. The wastebasket may be what they see first, and therefore use first.

Solution: Store the bathroom wastebasket inside an enclosed cupboard. If you don't have such a storage spot, try keeping it behind a shower curtain, so other family members can still use it. (Keep cleansing wipes or spray cleaner in easy reach to give the tub a quick clean before using, though fortunately most bathroom wastebaskets aren't too messy.) If your loved one is urinating in other containers around the house, be sure to schedule a medical checkup so that urge incontinence can be treated.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 4 years, said...

I cared for a man who had mobility issues, incontinence and some dementia. He would urinate in the wastebasket next to his chair. At first it bothered me, but rather than fight a battle that I knew couldn't be won, I purchased a small, plastic wastebasket that I would empty and wash out as needed. A plastic urinal would've been difficult for him to use.

about 4 years, said...

My mom at 92 is still able to live on her own, though Val and I are seeing signs that it is growing more puzzling for her to complete certain activities. Particularly, ones that require steps..Well, lucky we live in New York, where recycling has been in place for some years. I got an idea: we made a scaled down version of DSNY's chart - How To Recycle, and mom spends a lot of time reading it, studying and sorting. So far, sort good (to make a bad pun). I congratulated her for knowing how to do this: cans and bottles in one bag, household trash in another, papers in a third. And though it takes time, she does get it right. I was able to put this in place - of course because her dementia is still early-on; there will come a day when 'trash' will be a meaningless concept to her. As will everything else. But for now, the solution was - I have broken down the task, and in her case that has worked. It also makes her feel very proud to do this task. She told me, "I sorted the trash and recycling and it's ready to go." Whereupon I bring it to the Compactor Room. And then reward her with a snack, or something she enjoys eating - like a cookie, or fruit cup.

over 5 years, said...

Very helpful ..I'm caring for my 95 your old mother in law. Coming from the Depression era She feels throwing away any food Is wasteful and will sneak into the garbage to retrieve it.

about 6 years, said...

Yes, I could not understan why the wastebasket when the toilet bowl is right next to it!