Older Mind Matters

Environmental construction of self

In October 2011 I wrote in the blog about Sabat’s three selves. I’m having a discussion with one of my colleagues about whether that’s ‘enough’. He asks (with respect to artists) whether it’s possible for the self to be located in the object of creativity?

I would broaden this further – what maintains our identity in part are the things around us which remind us of who we are and who we have been. For an artist that will be their creations (perhaps paintings, drawings, sculptures). For those of us who lack artistic talents this function may be fulfilled by photographs of our family, our pets, pictures of places we have enjoyed spending holidays or photographs of us pursuing our passions (whether that be windsurfing, golf or any other pursuit). I’ve often been struck by how some people who go into Care lose something important – to me they sometimes even become physically smaller. This could be my imagination but I think that we can be put into a situation where the things around us help us to continue being the unique person that we are; alternatively we can be put into a situation where we lose the things that keep us going. Good Care Homes encourage people to bring some of their own furniture, photographs and belongings with them, but I suspect we don’t realise how important some of the clutter that surrounds us can be (that’s my excuse for an untidy office!) Is this environmental construction of self?

If someone moves into a Home and loses all the clutter that they have accumulated over their life, they are left in a bland featureless generic environment. It is not only lacking in mental stimulation, but also imposes on the person a template designed for the convenience of the Care Home staff – not one that the individual would choose for themselves or feel comfortable in. Maybe we have our environments the way they are because that is how we want them. If we compel someone to move away from their self-created 'optimum', perhaps they are inevitably going to do worse.

Moving people into a strange environment can precipitate a crisis but I don’t think I entirely appreciated the complexity of why this might be. Perhaps it’s not just our routines and familiar faces that keep us going, but also the places and things around us. Artists may not be greatly different from the rest of us.

6 comments (Add your own)

1. Derek BEESTON wrote:
A thought provoking reflection and one tht certainly resonates with me. A few years ago I heard a modern 'folk' song called 'The Cottager's Reply' by Chris Woods. The song tells the story of a young 'city' couple who come across a small run down cottage in the country. Deciding that it would make the perfect project for their future 'getaway, retreat they knock on the door and make the elderly man living there a generous cash offer for the property. The old man listens carefully and sensing his reluctance they make an even more generous offer, believing that the cottage is an object like any other, it can be obtained by the 'right' price. The old man sits the couple down and over a cup of Tea he explains what his HOME means to him - everything that makes him who he is is in every brick and floorboard.. His life, his loves, his triumphs and heartbreaks, they are all in the walls of his special place. It cannot be purchased, there is no price that could be paid, he was born here and he will die there. This song made me think about how buying and selling a home has become yet another aspect of 'liquid modernity.' A home is something one can 'do up,' profit from and dispose of. It may be no surprise that for younger health professionals and relatives having Mum or Dad sell up, liquidise their assets and move into care is seen as ' no big deal,' but of course it is a ' big deal,' giving up a home and ones ' things' is losing part of ones identity. But as Bauman ( Liquid Modernity) points out we live in a world where everything is disposable and temporary, if you don't like or get tired of one identity / partner/ look / gadget then simply change it for a new one. But it comes at a terrible price, we lose sight of who and what we are. From a sociological perspective ' disengagement theory' may also have contributed to the damage - by claiming that as we age we naturally disengage from roles and participation, so following this logic giving up ones things is only 'natural' and normal. In the novel 'Saturday' there is a description of a young couple emptying out the house of a deceased relative, nearly everything goes into the skip and bin bags - but of course what is seen as worthless and useless to them was special and meaningful to the person who had just died. Thinking about my own 'stuff' - I can quickly identify items that have a special meaning to me, photographs, clothes, books, small gifts from special people in my life; things I would never want to be without. I recommend to anyone reading Susan's reflection the book 'The O of Home' by Jennifer Kavanagh which is an exploration of identity through the meaning of 'Home.' One aspect of being Human is our advanced ( compared to other primates) capacity to have a theory of mind - our amazing ability to second guess and put ourselves into the minds and motives of others. What is so incredible about people though is tht we project our theory of mind into amazing places, our pets, music, environment, art, poetry, TV, stories, just about anywhere and anything. I once saw a person in floods of tears and sobbing at a highly abstract painting that in one small part depicted a 'cubist' horse being startled by an nearby explosion of colour! What was both remarkable and common place was that this person was ' empathising' and feeling for some paint on a canvas. what made it even more extraordinary was the fact that I found the reaction of this complete stranger affecting and moving, I was empathising with someone being moved by a painting in which a 'horse' that was represented by some 'cubes' was reacting to some ' explosion' (of colour) in he mind of the Artist ( The Bombing of Guernicca - Piccasso - Apologise for spelling). Yes Susan we do indeed have the ability to construct aspects of ourselves from the things around us. This also reminds me of work by Simon Baron-Cohen in Autistic Spectrum Disorder where some individuals may lack this ability or at least not have it well developed, creating some problems in interaction with others.
Mum or Dad. In Neuroscience there is much interest in so called 'Mirror Neurons' which may play a significant part in our ability to 'read' and empathise with others. Anyway enough of my ramblings....

Sun, January 15, 2012 @ 4:20 PM

2. Angela Hill wrote:
If things around us help us to continue being a unique person why due to the ageing process do some of us naturally forget these things. (wish I could forget the kids )
Looking at care homes who encourage residents to bring in their personal "clutter" is fine but then it is often put out of site and as you say with no encouragement to talk and bring back the memories, again this depends on staff, also we must look at the size of some rooms within care homes they are just not suitable for to much personal clutter,
Many of us when we tidy our clutter and all looks unusually spick and span cannot find a thing till the clutter returns once more.
As for the clutter on your office Susan, whats the car like?
The brochure these homes put out amaze me, you can bring personal affects and even pets, all I can think of is a dog peeing up an armchair, major hygiene problem, lets face it its just a gravy train to many of these home owners,not all though.
Surely if more families looked after their elderly relatives like I can remember in the 50s and 60s and got the support they needed their clutter would be their not just for them but for their future generations, then who am i to criticise the system, just someone who is getting old, well supposed to be.

Sun, January 15, 2012 @ 7:07 PM

3. Donna Doherty wrote:
I quite agree and think that we underestimate the impact both of removing the self from places and things that make us who we are and the transitional process of moving either into care or into another environment. Have we really got a grip on what makes us who we are and how important 'self' is? I dont think we have in care provision at all.

Mon, January 16, 2012 @ 9:37 AM

4. Victoria Sharman wrote:
I agree and too much emphasis on the physical self takes little account of the self that has not been lost at various stage of dementia care.

Thu, January 26, 2012 @ 9:14 PM

5. David Jolley wrote:
Well said - one and all. But we are all artists in our own ways. The question is how to help people find, appreciate and exercise their artist selves and to celebrate this with them.
I have seen this done most wonderfully by Sharon Baker and her colleagues at STAA and by John Killick. Dementia Life - which is rebadged My Life - takes a humble but reproducible, affordable approach via a computer programme. To my mind these inspirations are more important than other more 'formal' and prescribed interventions.They are applicable when people are still living in their domestic home or when they have moved into a Care Home

Lets be hopeful and positive - there is much to encourage us

Sat, February 25, 2012 @ 6:17 PM

6. David Jolley wrote:
The thing is that there is art in all of us. The difficulty is often to know what there is in ourselves, let alone help others find their art channels.
I have seen it done magically by Sharon Baker and her associates at STAA. John Killick does it with poetry. Other people can use music, dance, stories, humour and so on. In many of these approaches old memory or reminiscence provides a framework onto which current activities are hung for pleasure, exercise and fun.
Families often do this naturally, as do meetings of friend who go back some years. In professional care settings this can be more difficult to achieve and needs a facilitator. People are prepared to do this. Bizarrely it is not easy to obtain funding for this essential therapy, but surely it should be built in as a basic essential in every care setting and especially in the care of people with dementia who are so dependent upon others to provide the structure and the tempo of daily life.
I am impressed with the potential of the Dementia Life/My Life projects to bring the best of this to people at relatively modest cost

Mon, February 27, 2012 @ 12:39 PM

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