Is Your Elderly Parent a Hoarder? Tips to Spot the Problem and Talk About It


You’ve probably seen the commercials for television shows about hoarding. What we see in those commercials is an eye-popping surprise of items stacked to the ceiling, with narrow walkways to get through each room. There’s rarely a place to sit and there’s almost always a family member asking their loved one to please – please! – let them clean up the mess. But the person who is keeping all of those things can’t stand the thought of letting go of even one ancient newspaper.

Though the television shows sensationalize the situation, hoarding is a very real mental health disorder that can tear a family apart. If you suspect your elderly parent or senior loved one might be a hoarder, this is the article for you.

What’s Considered “Hoarding?”

The Cleveland Clinic defines hoarding in simple terms: “Hoarding is a mental health disorder in which people save a large number of items whether they have worth or not.” The items a person chooses to hoard can cover a broad spectrum. Clothing, household goods, magazines, newspapers, other paper products, and even animals are all items that someone might hoard.

Over time, the problem can become severe enough to lead to more than just clutter – that clutter can create unsafe living conditions. Depending upon what the items are, the result could be mold, mildew, unhealthy air quality, difficulty getting around the house, and so much more. All that clutter can be a significant fall risk, and while a medical alarm can help with that, it’s vitally important to get to the bottom of what is causing someone to hoard.

Spotting the Signs

About 2-6% of the population in the United States is affected by hoarding. It often starts very simply, with just saving a few things here and there. It might even start with a collection of knick-knacks or favorite magazines, but slowly expands from there. Signs of hoarding include[1]:

·         A strong need to save possessions

·         Anxiety about needing those items in the future

·         An inability to get rid of things

·         Extreme stress when asked to get rid of anything

·         Uncertainty about where to store the collected items

·         Withdrawing from family and friends

·         Being wary of others touching the items

·         Collecting so much clutter as to make a space unusable

Those with hoarding disorder tend to have certain personality traits, such as avoidance, procrastination, perfectionism, indecisiveness, and issues with organizing or planning[2].

Is it Collecting or Hoarding?

One of the arguments a hoarder will make is that their items are a “collection.” But there are significant differences between collecting and hoarding. A collector of something – such as stamps, die-cast model cars, or comic books – will often seek out very specific items and then take good care of them, such as carefully placing stamps in books designed for that purpose. They will often figure out some interesting way to display the items. Even if what they are collecting has no value, and even if they have a great deal of it, a collection will usually be organized in some way. Someone with a collection will often be quite proud of it and invite you in to show it off.

Hoarding, on the other hand, doesn’t lead to such carefully-tended items. Instead, those items wind up anywhere they happen to fit, even if that means on countertops, desks, stairways, beds and other furniture, and any other available surface. There might be entire rooms filled to the brim. Once those rooms are full, the hoarding might move to vehicles, storage units, garages, and the like. There is often no rhyme or reason to the storage of the items and no attempt to display anything – just a need to keep those things. They will often be embarrassed by the things in their home and won’t want to allow anyone to come in to see them.

What Causes Hoarding Disorder?

No one really knows why hoarding happens, but there are several risk factors that could play into the problem. These include[3]:

·         A relative who has the same hoarding problem

·         Going through a traumatic life event, like the death of a family member, or a divorce

·         Depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or other mental health issues

·         A brain injury

·         Uncontrollable shopping and buying habits

·         An inability to pass up anything free, such as flyers or coupons

The Mayo Clinic reports that a hoarding disorder often begins between the ages of 11 and 15 but gets worse in middle age or the later years. In the early stages it might just appear to be a passion for collecting – often a fun personality quirk and obviously not a problem. It isn’t until the later stages that family and friends notice something is actually wrong.

When the person who is hoarding is confronted by a family member or friend about the problem, they will often say that they believe the items are unique, or that they will be needed at some point in the future. They might collect items that have deep emotional significance. They don’t want to waste anything, and they feel safe when they are surrounded by the things they’ve saved. If they are hoarding pets, they might be concerned that no one else can take care of them properly[4].

How to Approach Your Loved One About Hoarding

Start by getting informed. Hoarding isn’t just about holding onto things; the issues run deeper than that. The International OCD Foundation has a robust website about hoarding that offers a wealth of information.

Then approach your loved one with curiosity. Ask why the items matter so much to them. You might be surprised by what you hear! Talk with them about anxiety and depression. Ask them how they are feeling about the items, and what they feel when you talk about removing some of them. You will likely be met with resistance, and that’s okay. Hoarding is a lifelong disorder, and untangling that will be quite a process.

One way to connect with a loved one is to point out their difficult living situation. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, those who are hoarding will often have very limited use of the rooms in their home, but beyond that, they will often go without heat, live with broken appliances, or deal with other uncomfortable conditions because they don’t want to allow someone in to see the clutter. They might also be quite unhappy about not seeing family or friends, or dealing with the conflicts that arise because of the clutter. Allow them to open up and talk about those issues.

Remember that simply removing the items won’t help. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association cautions against it, as it could lead to even more problems, including an increase in anxiety, alienating the loved one, destroying their trust, sparking depression, and even leading to suicidal thoughts.

Other Steps to Take

This will be an ongoing process, so learning what to do as time goes on can be quite helpful for your loved one and for your own stress levels. Here are some ideas:

·         Get medical alert technology. The fall risk for a hoarder increases as they acquire more items. And in many cases, there isn’t enough room to move around the home properly, so getting to a phone to get help might be impossible. Alleviate the worry with a medical alert pendant or watch that they can use to get in touch with trained professionals to ensure they can get assistance when they need it.

·         Focus on safety. If your loved one won’t budge in their need to keep the items, ask for a compromise that will allow them to live in a safer way. A good idea is to focus on personal hygiene. Ask your loved one if they are willing to allow you to move things out of the bathroom, for instance, so they can get to the shower. The same is true of the kitchen counter, so they can prepare a meal.

·         Move at their pace. Remember that removing even a few items from the home can be emotionally exhausting for a hoarder. Asking if you can remove just one magazine, one newspaper, or a few pieces of cardboard can help ease them into the idea. If the answer is no, respect that and revisit the situation later.

·         Don’t argue. Though it might be tempting to “talk sense” into them, this will likely make them dig in and be even more determined to keep their possessions. Arguing with them will not only affect them in a negative way, but it will send your stress levels to unhealthy levels, too.

·         Don’t enable them. Never offer to store items for them, take them out shopping for more items, or gift them with anything that will add to the piles. Don’t bail them out financially, even if they are struggling with debt. These will make the problem worse.

·         Encourage professional help. Therapists, support groups, and treatment programs can help a hoarder see what is really happening and encourage them to let go of some items. Offer to accompany them to appointments if it makes them more comfortable to have someone familiar there with them[5].

The Bottom Line

The results of hoarding disorder can be devastating for the person who has it and for the family and friends who care for them. Potential health complications stemming from the situation can include an increased fall risk, the potential to be trapped or injured by shifting items, unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, and an increased risk of fire. There might be issues with work or legal concerns, such as eviction. There is often loneliness and isolation, which might be exacerbated by family conflict.

Protect your own peace of mind by doing what you can to ensure your elderly parent’s safety. Investing in a medical alert device with fall detection can be a great way to keep your sanity when you know your senior loved one is in a potentially dangerous situation. Do what it takes to help ensure their safety in other ways as well, such as making sure there are fresh batteries in their smoke alarms and that they have adequate heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

But what if your loved one won’t get help? What if they have children or grandchildren in the home, or far too many animals to care for? In that case, you might have to take stronger steps, such as calling local authorities with your concerns or getting in touch with animal welfare agencies. It’s a heartbreaking thought, but it’s something that must be done if your loved one or others in the home are living in dangerous or unhealthy conditions.