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Hoarding And Dementia: Managing This Behavior In Seniors

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Whether it’s useful items, like toilet paper and clothes, or things that seem completely useless to you, like magazines, newspapers, and old boxes, you’ve finally concluded that your senior parent or family member is undoubtedly hoarding.

Now, you’re concerned that this hoarding behavior could stem from their dementia. What is the relationship between hoarding and dementia?

Dementia can cause hoarding, especially earlier into the diagnosis, as well as in the middle stages of this disease. Most dementia patients who hoard do so to regain a sense of control, but they might also genuinely struggle to understand what are important items worth keeping and what aren’t. 

In today’s guide, we’ll talk in full about why the elderly often become hoarders, if hoarding is a symptom of Alzheimer’s, and what you can do if your senior parent or loved one is hoarding.

This upsetting situation requires a delicate approach, so make sure you keep reading for lots of info and advice!

Why Do The Elderly Become Hoarders?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.

A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.

You never would have pegged your senior parent or loved one as a potential hoarder, yet here you are. What causes older adults to hold on so fervently to what you perceive as useless stuff?

Let’s explore the causes of this complex phenomenon.

Boredom Or Lack Of Stimulation

Older individuals need physical and mental stimulation. Having too much of one but not enough of the other, or even a lack of both is going to cause a reduction in their quality of life. 

Collecting, even if all they’re collecting is rubbish, does give the senior some sense of purpose in their lives.

They feel a rush when they find a new item, and they’re stimulated as they build their collection.

Of course, as with anything, the excitement wears off as the novelty does, but by then, a senior may find themselves unable to stop hoarding. 

Concern About Losing Special Things Or Being Robbed

Some elderly might have different concerns. Perhaps they’ve misplaced special items in the past, including really expensive things, such as their smartphones or precious keepsakes like family photos.

They don’t want to experience that fear again, so they begin holding onto more items so they can’t be lost in the future. 

Ironically, the very act of hoarding makes it a lot harder to find any one particular item and does increase the likelihood of items ending up lost.

Perhaps after a burglary in their neighborhood or one that affected them directly, your senior parent or loved one is suddenly very scared about being robbed and of their personal belongings again.

They may subconsciously believe that the more items they have, the safer they are. Having an excessive accumulation of items gives them a sense of security.

Once again, a hoarder is often anything but safe, as hoarded items cause safety issues in the form of tripping hazards and increasing the risks of fires, as well. 

Feeling A Lack Of Control In Their Lives 

This is a big cause of hoarding in the elderly.

Even if your senior parent or loved one is as fit as a fiddle, with no serious mental or physical health issues, they cannot deny that the aging process is changing their daily life and their body. 

They’re slowing down, losing mobility, and getting forgetful (not even necessarily because of dementia).

There’s more they struggle to do, and eventually, that will give way to them not being able to do those things at all.

They know that if they continue down this path, eventually their independence might be taken away from them as they’re moved to care homes or an assisted living facility. 

A senior can feel like they have little control over the trajectory of their lives whereas once all their decisions were theirs alone. 

Hoarding is a source of control, which is why it can become addictive in some seniors. 

Anxiety And Depression

An anxious senior could easily get into hoarding.

They might feel like they have to collect and hold onto anything and everything they deem to be necessary items, because what if they need them someday?

Or what if their family needs them?

Depression can make it hard for a senior to feel motivated to clean up their home or keep it consistently clean.

Things begin to pile up, and as they do, it becomes more and more impossible for the senior to muster up the energy to do anything about it. 

Dementia 

Dementia is a very common disease among the elderly, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC estimating that 5.8 million United States citizens already have dementia and that by 2060, up to 14 million will.

Dementia patients can hoard for so many reasons.

As their brains physically change, the resulting confusion, impaired judgment, and memory loss can make it hard for them to remember what they have versus what they don’t. 

A senior could lose their ability to determine what’s worth keeping and what isn’t.

They may even find themselves unable to control their behaviors so that even if they wanted to stop, they couldn’t.

That said, some dementia patients might feel inclined to hide their behavior, at least in the early stages of the disease.

They feel shameful about their behavior, especially if they’re not sure where it’s stemming from. 

Later, as compulsive hoarding becomes more serious, it’s a lot harder to hide such behavior.  

Is Hoarding A Symptom Of Alzheimer’s?

Although hoarding behaviors are a common occurrence in patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, don’t be mistaken: hoarding is not a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.

Some patients can be diagnosed with dementia and never hoard a day in their lives.

Others will begin hoarding as the disease progresses (more on that timeline in the next section). 

If you see your senior parent or loved one beginning to go through a hoarding phase, helping them might prevent the problem from becoming severe. We’ll present our top tips for dealing with a dementia hoarder later in this article.

So why is it that some dementia patients hoard and others don’t? It all depends on the type of dementia a senior has.

The various types of dementia are mixed dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer’s. 

Frontotemporal dementia affects the same part of the brain where stockpiling occurs.

Thus, if your senior has frontotemporal dementia, they’re likeliest to begin hoarding.

That doesn’t mean that other forms of dementia cannot cause this behavior as well, but they’re less likely to. 

What Stage Of Dementia Is Hoarding?

Let’s say the loved one in your life was recently diagnosed with dementia. You’re now concerned they could begin hoarding because of it, and you’re wondering when those behaviors would begin manifesting themselves.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Hoarding for a person with dementia may be more likely to happen in the early and middle stages of dementia and often stems from trying to have some control in their lives.

How Do You Deal With A Dementia Hoarder?

Maybe your senior parent or loved one with early stage dementia has become a hoarder. Each time you visit their home, it’s piled up with more and more stuff.

The place is starting to smell, as well.

You’re not sure what to do, but you know you have to do something before the problem gets even worse. How can you deal with a dementia hoarder?

Here’s what we recommend.

Don’t Handle It Alone

Even if you’re the only adult child, the onus is not solely on you to clean your dementia patient’s house. Enlist friends and other family members.

These people may be able to emotionally appeal to the senior with dementia and help keep cleanup progressing nicely. 

Discuss Decluttering

That said, caregivers of dementia patients can’t walk into their senior parent or loved one’s house on Day One with trash bags, garbage collection buckets, and a dumpster parked outside. 

Before they touch a thing, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with their dementia hoarder to explain how concerned they are for the person’s health, happiness, and wellbeing living among all that clutter. 

Then, they need to ask if the person is willing to let them and other family members clean up a bit. 

Start Small

More than likely, you’re going to face resistance.

Remember, some dementia hoarders keep things because they think they’ll need them, or to feel like they have control over their lives. 

Others aren’t sure why they hold onto what they do, but they feel like they can’t give it up.

You’ll want to start cleaning a small area of the house first, like maybe the entryway where the newspapers and unopened mail is piled to nearly the ceiling. 

You wouldn’t be able to clean the whole house in one day even if you wanted to, so having small goals like this makes the process more manageable.

It also gives the person some time to adjust to having their items moved (or even touched). 

Reframe 

Instead of telling your dementia hoarder that you’re throwing their items away (many of which they deem precious and even priceless), try to reframe it and tell them how you’re donating their items to needy people.

That might make it easier for the dementia hoarder to agree to give things up, but the emphasis is on might. 

If you do intend to donate items, then don’t let them sit outside the house for long.

Take them with you that same day or the senior will go outside later and bring everything back in. 

Expect Setbacks

You can’t possibly see why your dementia hoarder needs newspapers from seven years ago, but they’re adamant about keeping them. 

You will not understand the logic driving the urge to hold onto a lot of these items. Don’t expect to.

Just know that hoarding is a psychological disorder.

Try to be understanding of their need to hang on to their “important things”.

Do anticipate that as you get to items that the senior is especially possessive of, you could run into some emotional outbursts and strong opposition when trying to throw away or donate those items. 

Get Help If Needed

When all else fails, enlist professional help for your dementia hoarder.

Psychotherapy – typically cognitive behavioral therapy – is an effective treatment for pathological hoarding. 

You can also seek professional hoarding cleanup services if you and your family aren’t making a dent in your dementia hoarder’s mess. 

Conclusion

Hoarding, while not a symptom of dementia in and of itself, is often a consequence of dementia, especially for those with frontotemporal dementia. 

Even seniors without dementia can begin hoarding due to anxiety, depression, feeling a lack of control in their lives, and the urge to hold onto items to possibly use them again later (or have their loved ones use them).

If family caregivers have a senior parent or loved one who is hoarding, don’t ignore the issue.

You need to discuss the safety and wellbeing of the senior in your life and try to work with them to get their home into habitable condition again. 

It’s not easy, but the end result will be worth it! 

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