Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Personal Trash Experience

In the introduction, Ms. Royte explores the question of what someone would learn about her from her trash. She is correct in that much can be gleaned about a person from his or her trash. Garbage can tell the narrative of someone’s life, especially in cases where people can no longer speak for themselves.
I was formerly employed by REAL Services where I worked with elderly people. Through the Guardianship Program, REAL Services would become the Guardian for elderly individuals who were mentally incapacitated. This usually involved placing individuals in long-term care facilities if they were still living independently. We worked with individuals with dementia who usually did not have family or friends involved in their care. There was often very little background information on a person. Guardianship staff would actually have to comb through their possessions looking for documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, life insurance policies, bank account information, etc. Through this program, I had many memorable experiences dealing with garbage that simultaneously triggered feelings of disgust, sadness, amusement, and inspiration.
It was interesting to not only piece together somebody’s life story, but to also find evidence of that person’s mental decline over a period of several years. For example, people who feel as if they are losing their minds will write notes to themselves. We would find little pieces of paper with notes such as “I took the purple pill this morning” and “gun under the bed”. You never knew what you might find amongst the seemingly mundane bits of trash such as fast food napkins, dirty Kleenex, and old receipts. Combing carefully through mountains of stuff, I would find plastic bags within plastic bags, each containing some trash. After tearing my way through several plastic bags, I might stumble across a $20 dollar bill amongst the litter. We would find that there was always a pattern to the behavior so that if we found cash in one plastic bag, it was likely that we would find several more just like it.
There was one lady who had been a traveling gospel singer and an expert seamstress in her younger years. She had beautiful clothes and a closet full of matching hats, gloves, and shoes. Seeing a person in the glory of their younger years gives you a connection to that person as the unique individual that he or she still is, despite the fact that the person can no longer speak coherently.
There was one house that was so dirty it had been condemned by the health department, but the home was a treasure trove of the last 50 plus years of the woman’s life. Regardless of the circumstances that brought her to our agency, this woman had once had a “normal” life. She had been married, raised children, and managed a household. She had been beautiful in her younger years and had been an avid fan of music and theatre. I was fascinated by the history contained in the home. There were old records and magazines, ticket stubs, vacation photos, children’s toys, and greeting cards. Even an old hat box from Robertson’s gave me an idea of who she had been and what had been important to her.
It was not uncommon to find that these elderly people seemed to never throw anything away. One can theorize about the psychological significance that holding onto certain possessions had for that person, but it also reminds the viewer that these people lived in a time period where they weren’t massive consumers. They lived during a time where people bought fewer things and tried to keep the things that they had. They made the most of what they had and didn’t automatically throw things away.
Of course, dealing with this much trash can be a huge obstacle. The size of the dumpster that the agency had to rent for the aforementioned home appeared to be as large as the house itself, as if one could just drop the house in the dumpster and obliterate the memories of her life.
These experiences made trash life-altering for me. Going through someone else’s trash is a voyeuristic experience and it is impossible to do so without reflecting on one’s own life. I have come to the realization that how we manage our possessions, especially towards the end of life, gives us choice, power, and dignity. Reading Ms. Royte’s book reminds me that the decision to be conscientious of our trash must start today.

1 comment:

Nancy W said...

Kim - I was very touched by your blog regarding your experience with the elderly at Real Services. Prior to reading your blog, I had never thought about 'trash' reflecting individual behaviors or habits, but your personal experience made me realize that a person's trash DOES say a lot about who they are. Now I'm wondering what my trash collector thinks of me! :) Yikes!
- Nancy