Column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate

According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding is the excessive collection of items and the inability to discard them. It can cause health risks, impaired functioning, economic fallout, and negative effects on friends and family.

Shows like TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive and the A&E Network series Hoarders are drawing huge audiences and high ratings. Although I find it far too uncomfortable to watch, people seem fascinated by the topic of compulsive hoarding and the inherent drama surrounding this condition. The family dynamics and the shocking video make for the kind of TV that many people watch, even if they do it with their hands over their eyes.

The one positive aspect of these TV programs is the awareness it has created about hoarding as a serious psychological condition. Hoarding may affect up to 2 million people in the United States. Seniors are especially prone to compulsive hoarding and the consequences can be very serious.

Excessive hoarding can prevent typical uses of spaces like bedrooms and kitchens. This can lead to the inability to perform activities such as cooking, cleaning, moving through the house, and sleeping. It can also be dangerous if it puts the individual or others at risk for fire, falling, poor sanitation, and other health concerns.

Some of the challenges seniors regularly face can be made much worse by hoarding. For example, they can lose bills in piles of mail or paper.  Unpaid bills can lead to cutting off utilities and, in extreme cases, home foreclosures.

According to Everyday Health, the signs and symptoms of serious hoarding include:

  • Parts of Your Home Become Unusable

  • No Organization to the Clutter

  • The Hoarded Items Hold No Value

  • Your Home Is Becoming Unsanitary

  • Increased Social Isolation

  • Combative or Defensive When Confronted

  • Unwillingness To Give Up Items

  • Anxiety or Other Mental Illness

People usually start hoarding during childhood or early adolescence, although the problem usually does not become severe until the person is an adult. People who become hoarders usually start saving items with the best intentions. They may be thrifty and believe they may need items in the future, or that they will accrue value.  Seniors sometimes hoard items because they attach emotional significance to them. Photos, cards, and keepsakes remind them of loved ones or happier times. Often when people feel abandoned or lonely, they surround themselves with things to replace lost people.

It can be difficult to determine when an older adult who has spent a lifetime accumulating possessions crosses the line from nostalgia and harmless collecting of keepsakes to hoarding. But when you do suspect hoarding, someone must intervene. Time, money, and safety are at direct risk.

Experts offer this advice for helping a hoarder. First, work very slowly and take small steps. Work in one area at a time. Achieving small goals that add up over time equals a big victory.  Hoarding doesn’t develop overnight and it is not solved overnight.

Schedule specific times to help. It will help provide structure to have someone be accountable for showing up to declutter.

Even though in most cases you can’t make the person do anything, you can minimize the likelihood of getting a defensive or “stubborn” reaction. Often, it’s tempting to start arguing with the person, trying to persuade them to see things the way you do. This kind of direct confrontation rarely works.

Show empathy.  Showing empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with everything the person says. But it does mean you are willing to listen and to try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

Think twice before throwing out a hoarder’s possessions behind his or her back. No matter how well intended, this doesn’t solve the problem and can further isolate the hoarder from getting help.

Divide up chores and work together and then set up a reward for afterward.

In many cases, hoarders need serious counseling and psychological treatment before cleaning up can be addressed. Often depression and isolation are at the root of hoarding behaviors, as people substitute having things for relationships.

Encourage instead of criticize. Never judge a hoarder. But do remind a hoarder you care about him or her, and that they deserve to live a healthier, more enjoyable life free of squalor and chaos.

If you or a loved one has symptoms of hoarding, talk with a doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

LifeCycles is intended to provide inspiration and information only. If you are considering any health, dietary, exercise or lifestyle changes based on the information provided here, please seek advice from a qualified professional.

Laurie Edwards-Tate, MS, is President and CEO of At Your Home Familycare in San Diego, California. In addition to her positions as entrepreneur, health care executive, educator, radio segment contributor and media guest, Edwards-Tate is also a wife, daughter, and dog lover. Read more LifeCycles in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow At Your Home Familycare on Facebook and on Twitter @AYHFamilycare.

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