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Senior Hoarding - How Did it Get to be Such a Mess?

Posted by Steve Jones

Wed, Mar 4, 2015

When you enter your mom's house, you can't believe how cluttered it's become. Last time you were there there were piles of paper, but now you can barely walk through the living room. The pantry is stacked with 6 cans of every kind of vegetable, most of them long past their expiry date; the medicine chest holds prescriptions from 10 years ago. She says she bought the cans when they were on sale, and you can't get rid of the medicine - what if she gets sick again? You don't remember her being so attached to "stuff" when she was younger; what happened?

Just the daily inundation of junk mail, catalogues and bills can be overwhelming to seniors who are struggling to remain in their homes. Add that to a lifetime's accumulation of possessions, and many seniors don't know where to start, even if they wanted to. Experts say older adults tend to save useless items for a variety of reasons, including fear of loss or change, thinking they will need them someday, being depressed, saving memories, or even feeling they can't physically handle the clean-up.

As people age they become slower to recognize there is a problem. They might be concerned they will be seen as incompetent, or embarrassed that they let the mess get so big. If they ask for help, that just confirms their incompetence. Senior hoarding can spell bigger trouble, though, such as missed bill payments, slipping and falling on the clutter, fire hazard, or mold and mildew, which can cause a host of dangerous medical issues.

Warning Signs of Hoarding

  • Piles of paper: mail, newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and unpaid bills
  • Precariously balanced stacks of boxes that make it difficult to navigate safely through the home
  • Difficulty managing activities of daily living
  • Expired food in the refrigerator and pantry.
  • Closets and drawers filled to overflowing
  • Compulsive buying
  • Inability to decide whether items are worth keeping, so everything gets kept

When you talk to your loved one about de-cluttering, they may resist and cite some of the following reasons they want to keep everything.

  1. Memories
    Certain items represent the event or person associated with them: a wedding dress or their granddad's favourite hunting knife. What's important is the history and memories, not the item itself. Keep just a small piece of larger items, such as a scrap of lace from that wedding dress; convert photos to DVD or place the best of them in a scrapbook; keep one out of a dust-gathering collection as a memento. If an item has family historical significance and should be kept in the family, give it to another family member who will appreciate it and care for it.
  2. Conservation
    Those who lived through the Great Depression are the original reduce, reuse, and recycle people. Appeal to their desire to help others by giving away useful items that someone else needs more than they do.
  3. Fatigue
    Most seniors dread the thought of leaving their home, even when it becomes too much for them to handle by themselves. Help them to go through the clutter and make decisions about what's worth keeping. Sign up for online statements and bill paying, especially if you can make the payment automatic. Cancel unread magazine and catalogue subscriptions and get them off lists for charities and junk mail. Buy them a shredder or take the sensitive mail that needs to be shredded with you when you leave.
  4. Health Issues
    A worsening condition such as dementia, arthritis, or diabetes may make it more difficult to manage household tasks like cleaning. Sometimes a health crisis provides the impetus for making necessary changes. They may need regular help to stay in their home, someone to help cook and clean and help mange financial affairs.
  5. Loyalty
    Just like items that represent memories, gifts from family and friends represent the giver and it feels disloyal to give them away. Encourage your loved one to give unused gifts to charity or to grandchildren or other family members.
  6. Fear
    Older people often fear what will happen if they give up their stuff. Some might fear losing the memories associated with it; others might be afraid they won't have it when the need it. Try using logical information to help them understand they can let go of some of it, maybe not all.
  7. The Future
    As people age, they don't want to let go of the person they were 30 or 50 years ago, particularly if that person was a lot thinner than today. Half the clothes in the closet don't fit anymore, but if she started walking again, she could lose enough weight to fit into them. Ask her to fill a box with clothes she can't or doesn't wear. In 6 months, she can give away anything she hasn't worn. Here's another opportunity for her to help someone less fortunate.

Convincing your senior loved one to get rid of their stuff can be challenging. The two-step process of first choosing what goes out and then actually disposing of it gives them plenty of opportunity to change their mind and decide to keep that broken clock. Next week we'll discuss some strategies to help you help them de-clutter.