How to Help a Senior With a Hoarding Problem
Senior Hoarding :
Causes, Risks, and What to Do About It
Senior hoarding issues are tough for caregivers to manage, both physically and emotionally. It’s well known that hoarding causes safety hazards like fall risk, blocked emergency access, and unsanitary living conditions. What’s not as well understood is the emotional side.
To help you care for a hoarder and the messy consequences, this post explains the difference between a pack rat and a hoarder and which emotions are behind the behavior, as well as how to provide emotional support, arrange help, and restore their home back to a livable condition.
Is It Hoarding? The Difference Between a Pack Rat and a Hoarder
Many people like to hang onto mementos and multiples of useful items for both nostalgic and practical reasons. But there are key differences between someone who collects and someone who hoards.
A hoarder suffers from an inability to discard items and often acquires useless items. They keep stacks of unnecessary items, like junk mail and old newspapers. They might move things from pile to pile, but will never throw anything away.
Many people have a few items they feel emotionally attached to, but a hoarder has an excessive attachment to many possessions and will be uncomfortable if somebody touches them or asks to borrow their items.
They’ll also feel unable to get rid of any possessions and will end up living in cluttered spaces that are often unsafe, unsanitary, and/or hazardous.
The difference between a collector and a hoarder is that when someone is hoarding, their daily life is negatively impacted.
If you are reading this article, you likely already know you’re dealing with a hoarder, and not just a pack rat or collector, and have noticed the following:
Signs of Hoarding:
- Avoids throwing away possessions that have no value to them or anyone else.
- Experiences mild to severe anxiety about getting rid of anything.
- Repeatedly adding to the hoard without recognition that there is a problem.
- Rooms in their home can no longer be used for their intended purpose.
- Possessions are negatively impacting their safety, health or hygiene.
Hoarding is Especially Dangerous for Seniors
Hoarding is dangerous for almost everyone, but it’s especially harmful for seniors. They’re more likely to fall in a crowded home and their health will be harmed by unsanitary or hazardous living conditions.
Hoarding results in serious side effects for older adults, including:
- Preventing emergency care – firefighters or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) may not be able to get through the house to reach them
- Causing physical danger – increased risk of falls or not being able to move around due to the extreme clutter
- Refusing home help – won’t allow anyone into their home (usually due to embarrassment or fear of their stuff being disturbed), this negatively affects their nutrition, hygiene, and medication
- Producing unsanitary conditions – spoiled food leads to pests and food borne illness
- Creating fire hazards – piles of old papers, newspapers, or magazines can easily go up in flames
Mental Issues and Hoarding
Senior hoarding issues could also indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or mental illness. In other cases, it could also be caused by Diogenes Syndrome, a condition that affects some seniors near the end of life. Diogenes Syndrome is characterized by hoarding, self-neglect, social withdrawal, and a refusal to accept help.
Hoarding is often accompanied by some degree of anxiety, which makes it difficult to treat – and tough for families to watch. And because hoarders tend to self-isolate, it makes their emotional well-being even more fragile.
When you’re caring for someone who hoards, it’s helpful to learn more about senior hoarding issues (see my book recommendation below). Understanding the emotional side of this behavior helps you work toward effective solutions in a kind and gentle way.
Hoarding Can Be Triggered By Trauma
Recently, it has been found that people who have hoarding symptoms are also more likely to have experienced a traumatic event in life. It could be that hoarding is a coping mechanism to deal with grief or loss.
This is important to consider if your older adult has only recently started the hoarding behavior. They could be trying to fill an emotional hole left by the trauma of losing a spouse or another major life change.
The Emotional Effect of Senior Hoarding Issues
Even though hoarding can be a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety, trauma, or other mental struggles, it doesn’t provide real relief.
In addition, hoarding behavior often comes with poor decision making, procrastination, and a lack of organization. These impact all aspects of life and make it more difficult to have good quality of life.
And because hoarding is isolating, seniors who hoard typically have limited social interactions. They may even push you away or avoid you, damaging your relationship.
People’s perceptions of hoarders can negatively impact a hoarder as well. It’s easy for others to see hoarders as dirty or lazy, and those judgments can be difficult for them to hear and handle.
Struggling To Let Go Of Possessions
Hoarding is a complex and layered behavior. A hoarder could be dealing with any number of symptoms and conditions, from indecisiveness to anxiety and from trauma to social isolation.
Using hoarding as a coping mechanism could mean that there‘s something in the person’s life that is just too painful to face. Clutter builds up and provides comfort to the hoarder. Letting go of that comfort can feel excruciating.
In fact, hoarders can develop such strong attachments to their possessions that these items become more valuable to them than the people in their lives. Getting rid of something so valuable would feel similar to the extreme grief of losing a loved one.
That’s why if someone forces a hoarder to get rid of these items, their anxiety can intensify to unimaginable levels.
So even though it may seem like the most straightforward solution, do your best to not throw items away without permission or jump into a big cleanup without help from mental health professionals – it would be too emotionally distressing.
And if you do get rid of things without their approval, it will likely make them see you as an untrustworthy person. That makes it harder for you to continue helping them.
Do your best not to judge and remember that they greatly value the items you see as junk. A hoarder likely needs professional help to deal with their serious emotional issues before they can cope with cleaning up.
Emotional Help for Senior Hoarding – Avoid a Forced Cleanup
Not only would a forced cleanup cause extreme emotional distress, the person you care for will immediately return to their hoarding ways and fill up the space again.
What works better is to help your older adult see that hoarding is a problem. That doesn’t mean shaming the person. Instead, an empathetic and rational discussion (or several discussions) will help them gain the courage to do what’s best for themselves. Start by helping them see that a change needs to be made for their own safety.
If the hoarding is linked to a traumatic event, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is often an effective treatment. CBT helps the person cope with the emotions from the trauma and learn to manage their grief in a healthier way.
And even if the hoarding isn’t linked to a traumatic event, therapy is still helpful. Hoarding can’t truly be fixed until the root of the problem is found and addressed. For some people, medications that treat anxiety and depression may also be able to help with hoarding disorder.
Above all, be empathetic. Try to understand where your older adult is coming from and listen to what they have to say as you gently guide them towards recovery.
Visit the Doctor
Because hoarding is connected to health conditions or mental health issues, it’s likely that your older adult will need professional help. Having their doctor do a full evaluation will help figure out if the behavior is caused by dementia or other medical conditions.
If the issue isn’t related to a medical condition, therapy (sometimes in combination with medication) is a way to help seniors manage their hoarding behavior.
Practical Ways to Start Organizing With a Senior Hoarder
Start By Simply Talking About Decluttering
The first step to cleaning a hoarder’s home is starting a conversation with your loved one who is challenged with a hoarding disorder. Talk about your plans and emphasize the ideas of safety and confidentiality. Discuss how organizing their home will make it safer to live in and communicate that you’re only there for support, not to judge. It’s important to involve your mental health professional in these conversations as well, if applicable.
One of the most important tips for working with someone who is challenged with hoarding is to meet them where they are at. They are the owners of their stuff; they are the ones in charge of the process. Talk with the person to understand how the items they are keeping meet their end goal, whatever their end goal may be.
Use neutral language when talking with a hoarder about decluttering plans. Words like ‘clutter’ or ‘unsanitary’ can trigger [someone], and cause them to become defensive; using neutral, non-threatening language allows you and your loved one to communicate freely without pointing fingers.
Recommended Reading: Digging Out – Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding & Compulsive Acquiring
How to Create an Action Plan
Once all parties involved have agreed it is time to start cleaning the hoarder’s home, you will need to create an action plan to complete the project. Work with your loved one to create a plan they approve of and are ready to attempt.
Determine criteria for Getting Rid of Items
Sit down with your loved one and help them create a list of criteria to determine if something can be thrown away. Remember that these are their belongings and they are in charge of this process. Write down the criteria so everyone assisting can refer to them as needed. An example could be: All mail older than six months can be thrown away.
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Make a Schedule
Decide the order you will tackle the rooms and how much time you’ll plan to spend in each room. Remember, tackling rooms individually is much more manageable than tackling the whole house.
Setting goals is an important step in helping someone with hoarding tendencies. Set concrete and attainable goals to keep everyone motivated. A goal could be organizing their items and moving them to an area of the house that can be used for storage; clearing enough space in entrances and hallways to improve accessibility and safety; or clearing a space where they will feel comfortable hosting company.
Plan For Waste Removal
When working with someone who has a hoarding disorder to clean their home, you will most likely be throwing away a lot of waste. As you declutter the home, you will need to have a fast and simple solution for moving the debris out of the home. Renting a dumpster is a good option if the project is a large one. You can take your time filling the dumpster and have it removed as soon as your clean-out is complete. Other options for waste removal include curbside pickup and junk removal services.
Keep in mind that someone with a hoarding disorder may be tempted to remove items from the debris pile if left alone.
Begin Organizing the Home
With your plan and waste removal strategy in place, you are ready to being cleaning and organizing the home. Cleaning and organizing are two different things. First declutter the home, then organize and finally, begin cleaning.
Follow your plan and go room by room. Using your predetermined list of criteria, identify and throw away worthless clutter and create piles for items to be kept and items to be donated. Remember to discuss how each item being saved helps them meet their end goal.
For a practical detailed guide, read my blog post:
Helping someone with a hoarding disorder is incredibly challenging. It will be an emotionally exhausting process, especially when you are working with someone you love. Remember to stay positive and be patient. Take frequent breaks and continue to have positive and encouraging conversations with your loved one.
The best goal for anyone is just to manage expectations, and ultimately to proceed with no expectations.
Working with a hoarder and helping them to live better in their space is really not about fixing the problem, but finding some kind of happy medium where you can make yourself feel better and alleviate a dangerous and/or unsanitary situation.
Hoarding is never really cured, just managed. Understand that the room you cleared out might not last for very long, and the solutions you created may not be long term.
Thanks for visiting and reading …
I hope this article provided you some practical information on helping a senior with a hoarding issue.
I welcome your comments below.
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