When a Senior Loved One Hoards

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Do you own your possessions, or do your possessions own you? As we grow older, many of us must make decisions about what to do with a lifetime of belongings. In more extreme cases, families find themselves dealing with hoarding, a disorder which becomes more common as people grow older.

Collecting or Hoarding? What’s the Difference?

Hoarding has been a popular subject in reality programs recently, and we often read news items about a senior who is endangered by a home filled with unsanitary clutter. Collecting things is a human trait, and while there is an old saying that one man's trash is another man's treasure, accumulating items can sometimes grow out of hand. "Hoarding" is the excessive amassing of possessions, including those with no use or value, in a person's home, office, or even their car.

Almost all of us have a pile of unread magazines stored somewhere … old clothes in the closet that we think we might wear again someday … a spot in our house where mail and other items tend to accumulate for future sorting that doesn’t happen as quickly as we intend. Perhaps we have a collection of shells, frog figurines or decorative paperweights. According to the International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Foundation, "Simply collecting or owning lots of things does not qualify as hoarding." The association points out, "Collectors typically keep their possessions well-organized, and each item differs from others. An important purpose of collecting is to display these items to others who appreciate them." But hoarding goes beyond collecting. Signs of hoarding include:

  • Bringing more and more items home, even when there is no space
  • Saving junk mail, package materials and obsolete, useless items
  • Compulsive shopping, sometimes purchasing several of the same item
  • Items unopened in their original packaging
  • Difficulty choosing which items to keep and which to discard
  • Lack of organization that makes it impossible to reach or locate items a person really needs.

The home may be so full of possessions that the person is unable to reach the bedroom, kitchen or bathroom. The home becomes dangerous and unsanitary, and the person may be unable to bathe, perform other personal care tasks, or prepare nutritious meals. Relationships suffer when the person is embarrassed to have visitors, or has conflict with friends and family about the condition of their home. This can lead to further social isolation, and a cycle where the person perceives possessions as "friends" that provide comfort and security. Extreme hoarding may even lead to eviction and homelessness.

Why Do People Hoard?

Psychologists don't completely understand the origins of hoarding. Some experts classify it as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Others believe it is a separate condition. Stress, anxiety, depression and dementia can all be involved. Hoarding is more common in older adults. It also seems to run in families.

Treatment for this condition can be challenging. People who are struggling with hoarding can seldom get the impulse under control without help. Yet intervention is difficult, especially when the person doesn't see the squalor as a problem. Family and friends often want to help, but their tidying is likely to be perceived as interference. Social service agencies may step in; many communities today have interagency "hoarding task forces." Mental health professionals and support groups help people understand the problem and underlying causes. "Organization coaches" and specialized cleaning services can assist in dealing with extremely cluttered home conditions.

Though it may seem like an uphill battle where removing one item causes two more to appear in its place, the final rewards can be great. People who successfully gain the upper hand over their proliferating possessions are not only much safer in their homes, but also feel a greater sense of control over their lives.

For More Information

The International OCD Foundation's Virtual Hoarding Center offers information for people who hoard and their families; includes a treatment provider database

Children of Hoarders is a non-profit organization to increase awareness and understanding for those dealing with this problem.  

In the Next Issue of Hand in Hand: Cleaning up clutter is an important home safety issue for older adults when excess possessions in the home cause unsanitary conditions and the risk of falling. This is just one step in making the home safer for older adults. In the April 2014 issue of Hand in Hand, find suggestions about home modifications that can make your loved one's home safer, including a handy checklist to use during a home inspection.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2014