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Posted: May 30, 2008

OCD in Our Elderly

Is Mom Obsessively Compulsive ? or Just Anxious?

Karen Fleischner is terrified of germs. At age 65, she knows her fear is irrational, but she can’t help it. She washes her hands dozens of times each day. In fact, she washes them so often that the skin becomes so dry it cracks and bleeds. Still, she can’t stop herself.

Karen has obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Karen, who lives in Boise, Idaho, is obsessed with the idea of germs, and her obsession drives her to compulsively wash her hands.

Many of our elderly loved ones develop some signs of OCD without receiving a diagnosis of the full-blown disorder. Their anxieties increase with their advancing age, as they come to terms with the challenges of growing old and becoming less independent. Old habits may become excessive; if mom always kept the house clean, she might begin to obsess about it and clean compulsively. Dealing with these symptoms can be a challenge for caregivers.

Drive Longer, Stay Independent
“Mom was constantly cleaning the house,” says Gene Kearney of Hillsboro, Ohio. “She was obsessed with it. She’d say, look how dirty this floor is, and it would be sparkling clean. She was mopping the floor every day, sometimes more than once.”

“We finally found out what was going on with her,” Sandy Kearney, Gene’s wife, says. “She was afraid that if she couldn’t keep up with the housework she’d have to come live with us. She wanted to stay in her own home. She wanted to remain independent.”

OCD vs. OCD-Like Behaviors

Gene’s mother, Dorothy, doesn’t really have obsessive-compulsive disorder, because there is a logical basis for her anxiety. She certainly had some OCD-like behaviors, however.

Once they realized they cause of her anxiety, Gene and Sandy were able to lay Dorothy’s fears to rest. They assured her that they would help her remain in her own home. Sandy looked into community resources, and found that Dorothy would qualify for Meal on Wheels and for someone to come in and help with the housework if she needed it. The good news is that Dorothy still kept a very clean house, but she stopped obsessing about it.

How did Gene and Sandy find out what was worrying Dorothy? “One day I asked her what would happen if she didn’t mop the floor,” Sandy says. “And that’s when we found out what was going on in her mind.”

Anxiety and symptoms of OCD may get worse during times of change. Losing a spouse, moving to a new place, dealing with illness, and other times of stress may cause obsessions and compulsive behaviors to increase.

When Carol Sharpe’s husband died and she became unable to live alone in her Greenhills, Ohio, home, the 82-year-old widow moved in with her daughter. As her children were helping her pack, they discovered she had stockpiled canned goods in the pantry. “She had 42 cans of green beans, 50 cans of peas, and 57 cans of creamed corn,” says Carol’s daughter Elizabeth. “I was amazed.   And she didn’t want us to get rid of any of it, either!”

Hoarding as OCD Symptom

It is not uncommon for the elderly to stockpile food and other goods. Having lived through the Great Depression, many of them feel safer having plenty of supplies on hand. But this can also be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The technical term for it is hoarding.

“We didn’t know how to convince her she didn’t need so much food,” Elizabeth says. “We pretty much made her give a lot of the canned stuff to the food bank. I know it really upset her, but we didn’t know how to help.”

So how can you help your loved one if they are showing signs of obsessive- compulsive disorder?

Remember that the obsession and the behavior are signs of anxiety. Try to find the root cause of that anxiety so you can lay their fears to rest. You can ask, “Do you worry about running out of food?” or “What will happen if you don’t mop the floor?” In some cases, your loved one may not know or understand the cause of their behavior, but in many cases they will be able to tell you.

Reassurance is Key

Reassure them as much as you can. “I will take you grocery shopping every week. And remember, Meals on Wheels brings you lunch every day.” You may need to look for answers, as Sandy Kearney did, in order to provide reassurance. And you may need to repeat the reassurance several times before it sinks in.

If you are unable to reassure your love one, and their behavior is causing them a lot of distress, they may need to see a doctor or therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of therapy that looks at one’s thoughts and resulting behaviors, is the recommended treatment for OCD. There is also medication to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. Medication works by increasing the amount of a neurotransmitter called serotonin in the brain.

There are many stress reduction techniques that may also help relieve anxiety. You can find guided relaxation tapes at many bookstores and public libraries. Your loved one can also try yoga. You probably picture someone bending himself up like a pretzel, but there are plenty of other, more sedate, yoga postures. There are even some that can be done by people with limited mobility. Yoga also teaches deep breathing for relaxation – excellent tools in this case.

If your loved one tends to hoard things such as food, make sure you check the expiration dates. Food safety can become a concern. Elderly people may also hoard medication, which can be downright dangerous if they take too much or take the wrong pills. While you’re cleaning out the pantry, clean out the medicine cabinet as well.

Some elderly people also hoard pets – yes, pets. You’ve probably heard stories of an elderly lady with two dozen cats. If this, or something like it, is the case, call the local Humane Society or your local no-kill shelter for help.

Coping with OCD symptoms in a loved one can be frustrating. Understanding where they are coming from can make it a little easier. And remember there are ways to help relieve the anxiety your loved one is feeling. If you can’t help them cope with the anxiety by yourself, don’t hesitate to talk to their doctor. There is help available.


Kelly Morris is a former social worker and home health and hospice worker whose writing has appeared in a number of health-related journals. She lives in Mansfield, Ohio, and can be reached at


The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation
PO Box 961029
Boston, MA 02196

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America
8739 Georgia Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910

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