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Posted: December 31, 2010

Helping a Hoarder
When Your Loved One is a Compulsive Collector

When I was growing up, my family referred to my grandmother as a “packrat.”  She saved magazines in huge stacks in her basement.  When the discount store had a sale on toilet paper, she would buy two shopping carts full of the stuff and pile it in the basement with the magazines.  Her cupboards were full of canned goods that had expired years before.  Now, I recognize that she was really a hoarder.

The Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, reports that about two million Americans are compulsive hoarders.  Compulsive hoarding is an anxiety disorder in which people accumulate items that they do not need and refuse to get rid of them even if they are useless, unsafe or unsanitary. And our elderly are often the prime hoarding culprit in our society.

Now, hoarding may not sound like a big problem, but it quickly can become one.  For instance, elderly people may trip over clutter in their homes and break already-brittle hips.  If they do break a bone, emergency medical personnel may have difficulty even reaching them due to cluttered conditions.  That’s not all: They may suffer food poisoning from eating old food, or they may get sick from unsanitary living conditions, if they hoard pets or suffer from rodent infestations.  Hoarders feel very attached to their possessions, though, and resist getting rid of them.  They usually just do not realize they have a problem.

According to the International OCD Foundation, hoarding typically begins early in life and gets worse with age.  It’s rare for hoarding to begin after age 40.  Still, it may appear worse in elderly people than in younger people.  If you have an elderly loved one who compulsively hoards things, you may be concerned for his or her safety.  You may also find it difficult to help care for a hoarder; if you clean the house, it just becomes cluttered again.  You can’t find things you need.  You can hardly move around the kitchen or bedroom. In other words, hoarding takes over.

Why Seniors Hoard

Many elderly people lived through the Great Depression when times were tight, and some people suspect that is why some of them hoard things today.  My family thought that was why my grandmother was so reluctant to throw out food even after it had spoiled; she remembered days when she was young when she did not have enough to eat.  However, the International OCD Foundation says research does not support this theory.

Stress and anxiety may contribute to the desire to hoard things, and research has shown that hoarding behavior often gets worse after a serious loss, like the death of a spouse.  Many elderly people have experienced such losses by the time their family steps in to help.  My grandmother’s hoarding behavior worsened considerably after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Studies show differences in the brains of people who hoard things when compared to people that do not hoard things.  Compulsive hoarders may also suffer from other psychological disorders like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.  Compulsive hoarding is fairly common among people with Alzheimer’s disease, as well, which affects a growing number of our elderly.

Helping a Hoarder

It’s important to understand that compulsive hoarding is a psychological disorder.  If your loved one is a hoarder, there are things you can do to help, but you can’t “cure” the disorder anymore than you could cure them of schizophrenia.

Elaine Turek is a professional organizer who specializes in helping senior citizens in Wallingford, Connecticut. She offers the following tips for family caregivers who want to help a loved one who hoards things:

In addition, you should encourage dad to seek professional mental health treatment if he seems especially anxious or depressed or is unable to let go of hazardous or unsanitary items or allow you to help him make the home safe and livable. 

Treatment for Compulsive Hoarding

Both group and individual psychotherapy can help people who hoard things.  A particular type of psychotherapy, called cognitive behavioral therapy, has been found to be the most effective type of therapy when it comes to hoarding.  If your loved one agrees to try psychotherapy, look for a therapist who has training and experience working with compulsive hoarders.

Medication for depression or anxiety also helps, if a hoarder suffers from or shows signs of those conditions.  There are some medications prescribed by doctors to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, but research shows those are of limited effectiveness for compulsive hoarding.  A psychiatrist can evaluate your loved one to determine whether medication might help.

It’s important to understand that just cleaning your loved one’s house and getting rid of all the clutter won’t cure compulsive hoarding.  Hoarders who don’t receive treatment usually just accumulate more items in short order, once the first mess is removed.  Losing a lot of possessions, even useless or unsanitary items, may cause a great deal of stress unless your loved one receives treatment, too.

For more information, contact the International OCD Foundation, P.O. Box 961029, Boston, MA 02196,
617-973-5801, www.ocfoundation.org.

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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 multihearts@hotmail.com.

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