Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate

Ending its fourth season next week, the A&E Network series Hoarders (Mondays, 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central) is drawing huge audiences and higher ratings than ever.

Although I find it far too uncomfortable to watch, people are 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 makes people watch, even if through the hands over their eyes.

The one positive aspect of this program is the awareness it has created about hoarding as a serious psychological condition. Hoarding affects one in 20 adults. Seniors are especially prone to compulsive hoarding, and the consequences are even more serious.

Hoarding creates clutter. Clutter becomes an obstacle. Obstacles lead to accidents. Large piles of objects can fall over. Debris can cause trips and falls. Clutter can shut off safe access and exits to living spaces, even trapping people and impeding emergency personnel in extreme cases. It can create health hazards and draw vermin. I will let you draw your own mental picture.

Some of the challenges seniors regularly face can be made so much worse by hoarding. Bills can be lost in piles of mail or paper and go unpaid, leading to utilities being cut off and in extreme cases, homes being foreclosed. Medications can be missed or even lost.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of serious hoarding include:

  • Cluttered living spaces
  • Inability to discard items
  • Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail
  • Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything
  • Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, such as napkins or condiments from a restaurant
  • Difficulty managing daily activities, procrastination and trouble making decisions
  • Difficulty organizing items
  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions
  • Limited or no social interactions

People who become hoarders usually start saving items with the best intentions. They may be thrifty and believe items might be needed again or have value in the future. 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 by others or lonely, they surrounding themselves with things.

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 an individual’s safety are at direct risk. It makes for entertaining television to some people but hoarding is a deadly serious issue.

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.

Practical steps including controlling paper by getting off mailing lists. Stop incoming subscriptions and automated ordering.

Give the hoarder choices. Single tasks like filling a box provide satisfaction. Simply starting to organize items will help the hoarder see that he or she has 47 boxes of the same items.

Take photos of keepsakes. Scan cards, family photographs, and other paper items. Start with the premise that these items need to be stored safely in the event of fire or flooding. Electronic files save lots of space and are easy to duplicate. Help a hoarder learn how to better use online resources for information, instead of keeping huge libraries of books and piles of newspapers.

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.

Never overwhelm a hoarder with demands or timelines. It may take months for a hoarder to achieve any serious decluttering, but consider any progress to be positive.

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.

Resources for treatment include the “Hoarders” webpage and the Mayo Clinic.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

NEXT WEEK: Is Hollywood Finally Growing Up?

Leave a reply