Send to

Choose Destination
Encephale. 2004 Jul-Aug;30(4):315-22.

[Diogenes syndrome: a transnosographic approach].

[Article in French]

Author information

EPS Erasme, 143, avenue Armand-Guillebaud, 92160 Antony.


Diogenes syndrome is a behavioural disorder of the elderly. Symptoms include living in extreme squalor, a neglected physical state and unhygienic conditions. This is accompanied by a self-imposed isolation, the refusal of external help and a tendency to accumulate heteroclite objects. This particular geriatric syndrome has been described for the first time only quite recently, as the 2 primary descriptions by geriatricians and psychiatrists date from 1966 and 1975 respectively. Its rare occurrence contrasts with the fact that it is well-known, partly due to it being named after the Greek philosopher "Diogene de Sinope", who taught cynicism philosophy and a return to a natural way of life, and partly because of its rare characteristics. The Diogenes syndrome is a fascinating object of study for the clinician who takes care of patients living in uncommon conditions, on the edge of society and unaware of the particularity of their lifestyles. Patients suffering from Diogenes syndrome are usually discovered by chance, either because of a somatic illness, or as a result of social intervention related to their behavioural problems. Management of the syndrome is difficult and ethically challenging, as the patient does not seek help. Moreover, 46% of patients have a 5 year mortality rate. Hospitalisation has to be avoided whenever possible and ambulatory treatment and social measures should be favoured. Psychotropic treatment prescription may be necessary, depending on clinical features and the possible underlying psychiatric disease. Although several clinical hypotheses have been suggested, the true ethiopathogeny of the syndrome remains unclear. Most authors agree that this behaviour does not reflect free will and has consequently no theoretical relationship to the Greek philosopher. There is no true consensus about diagnostic criteria. They include the main features of the syndrome and exclude known psychiatric syndromes. Clark and Mankikar, who named this syndrome, reckon it may represent stress-related defence mechanisms of the elderly or may be related to natural ageing process. However, psychiatric pathologies as paranoid and paranoiac psychoses, mood disorders and obsessive and compulsive disorders have been described to be associated with it in the literature. Dementia, in particular temporo-frontal dementia, should be looked for and excluded clinically. Alcohol abuse seems to be an aggravating rather than a precipitating factor. Finally, the link between these pathologies and Diogenes syndrome is not yet determined: are they triggering, co-morbid or etiological factors? Should this syndrome be considered as a true illness or as a symptom? This paper presents Diogenes syndrome as a behavioural disorder and distinguishes 2 types: the "active type"--patients who collect from outside to clutter inside--and the "passive type"--patients who passively become invaded by their rubbish. Active type patients fill their home to fill in the vacuum of their life, as it deteriorates and looses its narcissical appeal. Passive type patients accumulate by default and emptiness. A psychopathological understanding is presented here, referring to psychoanalytical theories of the Moi-peau (ego-skin) described by Anzieu. The Moi-peau represents a structure of the psyche founded on the following principle: any psychic function develops itself according to a bodily function from which it transposes its functioning at a mental level. The skin has three functions: the containing shell, the protective barrier of the psyche, and a medium of exchange. The Moi-peau is organised as a double-wall acting both as a defence mechanism and as a filter between the psyche and the external world. It preserves the relationship and the cohesion "container-content". As a result of a narcissical wound, the Moi-peau is damaged and looses its function of a container. In the case of Diogenes Syndrome, the accumulated items repair the Moi-peau and the home becomes an "exterior-proof", thus playing the role of the Moi-peau. This behaviour therefore plays a repairing role for psychic functioning, allowing psychic survival.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Masson (France)
Loading ...
Support Center