In my practice as a geriatric care manager, I come across senior hoarders. Families are frustrated that their aging loved ones are living in squalor and unsafe conditions yet the senior is unable or unwilling to assist with resolving the problem. Here is an explanation of what may be happening.
What is Hoarding?
Hoarding is the compulsive act of acquiring and saving of objects by a person, even though they have so many belongings and many that appear to be useless or of limited value, that it creates significant health and safety issues at home. Seniors who are hoarders often resist attempts to weed out their homes because their possessions take on a life of their own. Many say they need items because they are useful or have a need for the future, have great sentimental value, or they got a deal they couldn’t pass up.
Why is Hoarding Especially Dangerous for Seniors?
It can prevents emergency care from not being able to get through the home to reach the person. It causes physical danger by increasing the risk of falls and tripping on clutter. Often, the senior will not permit anyone to come into their home because of embarrassment. This can and will negatively affect their hygiene, nutrition, and health. There is increased risk of fire hazards because of the retention of piles of old papers, newspapers, magazines, or old boxes. Additionally, hoarding usually is accompanying by unsanitary conditions such as spoiled foods and rodents. It may also indicate that a person has Alzheimer’s or dementia.
What Causes Hoarding Behavior?
Currently, the cause of hoarding is not clear. Doctors and psychologist think hoarding could be a sign that someone has dementia, other cognitive disorders, or a mental illness like OCD, depression, or anxiety. Other triggers include living along for long periods of time without social interaction, lack of cognitive stimulation, or a traumatic event, such as the loss of a spouse or child. Decision-making ability is impaired along with motivation.
What to Look For?
· Past expiration dates on food and medications
· Home in disrepair or not being maintained
· Rooms and closets no longer being used as designed
· Movement in home is restricted and not safe
· Difficulty getting rid of items
· Increased falls
· Compromised self-care and safety
How Can Senior Hoarders be Helped?
Make an appointment with their Primary Care Physician. Because hoarding is connected to health conditions or mental health issues, the older adult most likely needs professional help. It’s also one way to figure out if the behavior is caused by dementia or other medical conditions.
If the issue is not related to dementia or other medical condition, seeking professional therapy is a way to help seniors manage their hoarding behavior.
Be patient and encourage them to declutter. Use kindness and compassion and break down each task into clearing small areas over time rather than everything at once. Treat even small steps as a success. Start by getting rid of a smaller part of a larger collection to show the senior that they are okay without them.
Patti Urban, CSA, is the CEO of Aging Care Planning Solutions, a geriatric care management company that assists the elderly and their families with advance care planning as well as guidance for patients with life-limiting illnesses. She is also a Certified End of Life Doula and former Executive Director of a memory-care assisted living community. She can be reached at www.agingcarePS.com.