Perhaps there was a time when you used to appreciate your elderly parent’s sentimental nature and how they wanted to hold onto nearly everything. But when you recently visited their home, you saw the consequences of their “collecting” and realized that nearly every square inch of the house has become overrun with junk. Now all you can think about is how to help your elderly parent with hoarding.
- Start cleanup with small steps. Take one room at a time
- Let your elderly parent have a say in what stays and what goes, but don’t keep everything
- Provide emotional support
- Never blindly throw things away – this could cause a serious rift between you and your parent
- Ask for professional help if your parent wants to change, but can’t
Discovering an elderly parent is a hoarder can be a tough pill to swallow. To you, it might seem like their items are simply “junk”, but to the senior, they mean everything. Keep reading for more information and advice on dealing with a senior hoarder in your life.
Signs Of Hoarding In The Elderly
Those with a hoarding disorder often have a hard time making decisions about everything – from small, inconsequential choices to much bigger ones. They may also struggle in such areas as organization and planning. Despite this, they may be perfectionists.
Hoarders will want to keep just about everything, from items that seem valuable to those that have no obvious value at all and could even pose a health hazard (like a moldy item or food that’s long since expired). In holding onto all these items, their home can rapidly become overfull with stuff.
Signs of hoarding can include:
- Acquiring things that aren’t needed or being used (especially if the person has many of the same items, such as ten can openers or hundreds of unread newspapers (I witnessed this in the sibling of a friend who had waist high towers of newspapers stacked up in her home).
- Showing anxiety and distress if someone suggests they need to part with these items.
- Rooms that are so cluttered they can’t be used.
- Not inviting loved ones or friends to their home because they are embarassed.
- Having an abnormal number of pets or animals (animals can be hoarded just like items can be).
If you ask them, a hoarding parent will tell you that the things they are saving are:
- sentimental or irreplaceable or remind them of happier times in their life
- will be useful in the future
- help them feel “safe”
- something they got as a great deal or that are bargain items they couldn’t pass up (I remember a patient of mine who told me her mother was “addicted” to QVC and other home shopping networks. She had recently found out that her mom was literally getting dozens of packages delivered daily because she was buying (one (or more) of nearly everything she saw on these shows.)
The reality is that the home of a senior with a hoarding disorder poses huge health risks. It’s often dangerous to try to get around in a hoarder’s home, and, if unsanitary items have been kept, it’s not safe to breathe the air or stay long in this filthy environment.
Why Do Elderly People Hoard?
Hoarding doesn’t exclusively affect seniors, but no matter the age, all hoarders do have one thing in common: what’s known as hoarding disorder. According to Mayo Clinic, this disorder is classified as “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.”
Hoarding disorder is different from collecting. People who have collections, such as stamps or model cars, deliberately search out specific items, categorize them and carefully display their collections. Although collections can be large, they aren’t usually cluttered and they don’t cause the distress and impairments that are part of hoarding disorder.
Often, those with a hoarding disorder don’t see that they have a problem, which can make it difficult to treat (and also tough for an adult child to clear out their parent’s possessions).
Good to know, but you also need to be aware of what could cause a hoarding disorder in seniors. It turns out that there are a few culprits, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The first of these is obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD. While those with OCD are sometimes preoccupied with perfection and cleanliness, the mental condition doesn’t manifest like that for all people. For some, they begin hoarding. In fact, this 2009 article from LiveScience states that as many as 30 to 40 percent of those with OCD may be compulsive hoarders.
As more research has been done on hoarders over the years, medical professionals have found it’s more than just OCD that causes hoarding disorder. It could be depression as well.
Seniors have a lot of life changes going on as they age. Their friends and other family members may have died or become seriously ill. The senior could have gone from independent living to dependence or even a nursing home. Elders also have more aches and pains that can make daily life difficult.
These factors can result in depression. While depression, like OCD, is not the same for everyone, it can cause a general disregard for one’s health and well being. If they are depressed, the senior might stop taking care of themselves and their home, and begin letting things accumulate.
Is Hoarding An Early Sign Of Dementia?
Earlier in the article, we talked about how elderly people with OCD and/or depression may develop a hoarding disorder. But, what about dementia? Does this condition make a senior more likely to hoard?
There is certainly a connection between hoarding and dementia. In a 2016 study by Bicer, et al, researchers reported that, “It should be kept in mind that hoarding behavior which begins at late life might be a sign of dementia or it might appear in the dementia process.” A senior with dementia may undergo changes to their personality, sometimes drastic, and in other cases, less so. These mood changes may cause inappropriate acts, which could open the door to hoarding.
The anxiety that can come from dementia could lead to hoarding as well. If a senior feels like they might need to hold onto something for later, then they’ll keep it, even if they don’t use it. They continue repeating this behavior until it gets out of hand. The senior may even begin keeping things to cope with the anxiety caused by aging, loss, pain, and more.
Depending on the stage, confusion often clouds a senior’s mind if they have dementia. This may also play a role in hoarding. If the senior doesn’t know whether to keep or toss something and can’t make up their mind without great difficulty, then they may not make a choice at all. They will likely just leave the item where it is because it’s easier.
However, if your senior parent has a hoarding disorder, it does not necessarily mean they have dementia, too. Additionally, a senior can be diagnosed with dementia without ever having been a hoarder. There does exist a common thread between the two conditions though, and it’s one that’s worth paying attention to.
How Do You Deal With A Parent Who Is A Hoarder?
If you’ve realized through reading this article that your elderly parent may have a hoarding disorder and you’re worried about what could happen if their behavior continues, what should you do?
First, know that the longer you avoid the issue, the more it festers. Instead, it’s better to deal with things head on. At this point, you’re going to want to sit down with your older parent and have a conversation about their home and its condition.
There’s a concept called motivational interviewing that the International OCD Foundation recommends. With motivational interviewing, you’re asking questions and making statements to get the senior to realize their life is not in an optimal place right now. You’re also trying to show them that life can be better and paint them a picture of how that might look.
In some cases, motivational interviewing could be enough to trigger change. That said, you must remember that hoarding disorder is a mental issue, as is the depression, anxiety, OCD, and dementia that can be tied to the disorder. A senior may want to change their ways but find themselves unable to do so.
In those situations, it’s much better to enlist the help of a professional. In this case, look for a counselor, a psychiatrist, or a mental health professional who specializes in hoarding assistance and support.
How To Help A Hoarder Get Rid Of Things
Let’s say that you’ve been to your senior parent’s home recently and you’ve reached the conclusion that things cannot continue to go on like this. It’s not safe for anyone to live there and there are so many things piled up in every corner that even you find yourself tripping over them. This makes you worry that your parent will fall and hurt themselves one day and no one will be able to get to them.
How do you begin removing all the clutter from the home of your senior parent? Here are some tips and tactics to try:
- Set small goals
- Keep things moving
- Leave shame out of the equation
- Let the senior have some control over the decluttering
- Be prepared for setbacks
- Don’t work alone
Let’s look at these tactics more in depth:
(1) Set Small Goals
First, you’ll have to convince your parent that they need to get rid of their stuff. In some cases, this may not be possible without enlisting professional help from a mental health therapist.
Next, even if your senior parent doesn’t have a particularly large home, don’t expect to pure the whole thing over a period of a day or two. It’s never going to happen.
Instead, anticipate that you’ll need to dedicate several weeks and maybe more like several months to this project. Each time you visit your elderly parent, be ready to tackle a room. With time, you’ll get it done.
(2) Keep Things Moving
Just because you’re not cleaning the whole house over a weekend does not mean you should take a break for a month. Clearing hoarding clutter must be done steadily or by the time you clean something out, the next time you come by, your senior could have filled the empty room with more hoarded stuff.
It’s more efficient to have a swift timeline for project completion, and then do your best to stick to it.
(3) Leave Shame Out Of The Equation
You may not think your older parent feels any shame for letting their life get to this point, but you’d be surprised. Often, those with a hoarding disorder are quite embarrassed about their behavior. That doesn’t mean they can necessarily stop it, but they’re still ashamed of what they are doing.
If you believe a little tough love or shaming will force them to change, keep in mind that it very often doesn’t do anything but make the person fearful and resentful. Instead, be gentle and kind with your interactions on the topic.
(4) Let Your Senior Have Some Control
When you see a cluttered room in your elderly parent’s home, it’s likely that – to you – none of the junk in there is worth keeping. Obviously, your parent doesn’t feel the same way, though. As you purge and go through things item by item, you should ask your parent what importance the piece has to them.
This can help you create an organization system. For instance, maybe you set aside a couple of the most important items to keep, which will allow you to throw away the less important ones. You can find more ideas in our article, Decluttering Tips For Seniors.
Above all, don’t blindly charge in and begin tossing things out left and right. Your senior parent deserves respect and they may never forgive you for it.
(5) Be Prepared for Setbacks
Once you begin the decluttering process, anticipate that you will receive some push back from your senior parent. As I just mentioned, there are going to be things you will want to throw away that they will insist you keep. You two can fight all day over an item, but this wastes time and only creates anger and resentment. Choose your battles carefully.
(6) Don’t Work Alone
Unless you’re an only child, the job of cleaning up your senior parent’s house shouldn’t fall squarely on your shoulders. If you have other siblings and family members who can help, then please ask that they do so. More hands make it easier to clean up faster, not to mention someone can be there exclusively for emotional support of your parent.
If they are getting counseling for hoarding, you may also want to ask the senior’s psychiatrist or mental health professional to be available, if possible. They, too, can provide support and help to control outbursts from your parent so the decluttering process can move quickly.
Seniors are more likely to become hoarders due to conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and dementia. If you believe your elderly parent is a hoarder, avoid shaming them. It won’t cause them to change their ways – after all, a hoarding disorder is a mental condition, not a physical one.
Instead, you want to create a game plan for cleaning out the house. Always lean on professional support if you can get it , and remember to take the process slowly, yet surely. Good luck!