By Christine Lever and Matti Sevink

Do you have a parent whose home is so full of old newpapers that there are only narrow paths left through which to navigate? Do you worry that it is a fire trap?  Does your mother own forty-seven cats and counting? Can’t bear to part with a single one of them? These are examples of hoarding. Although not exclusively a problem of the elderly, this is often when the problem finally has to be dealt with. In fact most hoarders start early in life. It takes a long time to gather all that stuff.

What is it?
Definition: an extreme need to collect and hold onto items that can interfere with day-to-day living.

Why do people do it?
Hoarding can be seen as a symptom of an illness affecting both men and women. It is often associated with Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression.  Hoarding can become a fire, health and safety hazard.

People hoard for a variety of reasons.  Below are just some of the causes that can trigger a person to hoard:

∑ Fear that they cannot replace an item
∑ Fear of loss
∑ Fear of memory loss (the items represent a significant period in their life)
∑ Belief that items can be repaired
∑ Belief that items are valuable
∑ Fear of making a mistake
∑ Fear that their personal information can be obtained by throwing something out in the garbage
∑ Compulsive-obsessive need to keep everything
∑ Fear of poverty **many seniors grew up during the Depression and lived their lives worried that extreme poverty could happen to them again**
∑ Items represent financial security and independence, ie hoarding tools.
∑ Items may represent feelings of love and security that they do not get from family or social contacts
∑ The senior may be too frail or ill to physically sort through the clutter
∑ Inability to look after themselves
∑ Something stressful has happened to them causing them to begin hoarding

What can be done?
Below are some tips on handling a very stressful situation:

∑ speak to the senior directly with respect and recognize them as an adult
∑ speak to them quietly and without using confrontational language

∑ ask them to tell you about the items that they are hoarding

∑ be supportive but remain focused and calm

∑ assess what kind of hazard the hoarding presents

∑ if necessary, consult with the family doctor or Community Care Access Centre social worker

∑ respect the importance and attachment to possessions by the senior; these attachments may be as intense as human attachment

∑ work together with the senior and professionals but expect changes to be slow, gradual and even expect some set-backs

∑ respect the senior and their stories; they may have very strong attachments to their hoarded possessions, listen to what they have to say

∑ reassure the senior that you are listening to them and that you will do what you can to help them and work with them

∑ keep talking to the senior so that they know that they are involved in the process; ask for their opinion in seeking solutions

∑ if appropriate, involve other family members, friends and relatives to aid in the solutions and maximize efforts and resources

∑ remember that the senior is present and don’t begin to talk about them as if they were not there or as if they are incapable or a child

What should not be done?

∑ don’t use sarcastic, belittling or negative language or comments

∑ don’t tease

∑ don’t be critical or judgemental of the senior’s living conditions

∑ don’t ignore the senior or talk down to them, don’t infantilize them

∑ don’t force an intervention (bring in lots of people to clean up the place without informing the senior of the plan and letting them be part of the solution)

∑ don’t assume that the senior is incompetent and unable to make informed decisions

∑ don’t use the senior’s first name unless you have permission to do so

∑ don’t badger the senior for personal information as that may make them nervous or hostile

As you can see, this is not a simple case of sloppy housekeeping or disorganization, but rather a symptom of a disorder that needs to be handled with great care and understanding. If you choose to work with a professional organizer, make sure you that you’ve chosen one who understands how to work with people who are chronic hoarders, so that the hoarder isn’t traumatised by the experienced. By working with a knowledgable professional, the result should be a long-lasting end to the clutter.