For many seniors and their families, the golden years bring forth challenges that had never been considered in earlier days. One such challenge, often hidden behind closed doors, is hoarding. Only recently have researchers identified hoarding disorder as a distinct form of mental illness; before 2013 it was grouped with behaviors marked as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

A condition that is much more than just the accumulation of items over time, hoarding can significantly impact a senior’s health and quality of life if left unaddressed. Hoarding behavior might indicate the presence of a deeper psychological issue such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or depression. Researchers estimate the incidence of hoarding disorder among adults runs between 2% and 6% but doubles to 13 percent among older adults and seniors, particularly those diagnosed with late life depression.

In severe hoarding situations, seniors can find their quality of life significantly compromised as their living environments become obstructed by accumulations of items, ranging from stacks of magazines, books and keepsakes to broken electronics and worn-out furniture.

While hoarding often is dramatized in various media like reality-TV’s Hoarders, understanding and managing this psychiatric disorder go beyond mere tidying up. Eradicating the clutter is a step, but it’s crucial to address the root psychological triggers that contribute to the onset of hoarding behavior in a senior loved one.

What is Hoarding Versus Collecting?

Many of us know collectors or call ourselves one, pursuing a pastime of accumulating things like coins, stamps, dolls, comic books, seashells, and such. The reasons behind starting a collection vary; some cherish the sheer joy of the collected items, while others see their burgeoning collections as potential financial investments.

Hoarding disorder is not merely a penchant for collecting or the reluctance to tidy up. It is a recognized condition characterized by the excessive collection and retention of items, even if these items appear worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary to others. Health researchers have identified several factors that can contribute to the development of hoarding behavior, including genetics, emotional trauma and changes in brain function.

Seniors diagnosed with dementia or seniors challenged by a physical disability can develop hoarding simply because they lose organizational skills or the ability to keep on top of housework. Some empty nester seniors who have downsized their home find they have less room for their possessions.

Recognizing Senior Hoarding Behavior

Recognizing the symptoms early can be key to addressing the issue before it exacerbates. These symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty discarding items, leading to severe clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living spaces.
  • Loss of functionality within the home, such as not being able to use the kitchen for cooking or the bathroom for bathing.
  • Significant distress or feelings of overwhelm at the thought of parting with items.
  • Isolation or reluctance to allow others into their home due to shame or embarrassment.
  • Distrust of people touching their possessions.

The Risks of Hoarding for Seniors

The implications of hoarding for seniors are multifaceted, affecting physical health, safety, and emotional well-being.

Physical Health and Safety Risks

  • Increased Risk of Falls: Cluttered environments significantly increase the risk of trips and falls, which can be particularly dangerous for seniors, potentially leading to serious injuries or complications.
  • Fire Hazard: Excessive items can easily become a fire hazard, either by increasing the likelihood of a fire starting or by blocking exits in case of an emergency.
  • Compromised Hygiene: Hoarding can prevent the regular cleaning of a home, leading to unsanitary conditions that pose health risks like mold and can attract pests like dust mites.

Mental Health Concerns for Senior Hoarders

Hoarding can also affect a senior’s mental health, causing or exacerbating feelings of stress, anxiety, shame, and depression. The isolation it often brings can further contribute to a decline in mental health.

Solutions for Seniors and Their Families

Addressing hoarding requires sensitivity and understanding. It is not a situation that can or should be resolved in a day. Here are some anti-hoarding strategies to start tackling the problem:

Open Dialogue

Begin by having an honest and compassionate conversation. Avoid judgment or criticism, which can cause defensiveness. Instead, focus on your concern for their health and safety.

Gradual Decluttering

Rapidly removing items can be traumatic. Work on small, manageable areas at a time, respecting the senior’s decisions on what to keep, discard, or donate.

Professional Help

Consider involving professionals who specialize in hoarding behavior, including therapists and professional organizers who understand the complexities of the disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy by a licensed mental health professional has become a common treatment for hoarding disorder.

Regular Check-Ins

Create a routine that includes regular visits and assistance, not just with decluttering but also with maintaining a connection and supporting their emotional well-being.

Exploring In-Home Care Options for a Senior Loved One Who Hoards

In some cases, having in-home support from a trained caregiver or making a move to a senior living or assisted living community may be beneficial. A trained caregiver can provide specialized support as part of a collaborative and holistic effort involving the senior loved one and family member. A senior living or assisted living community environment can provide a fresh start in a safe, manageable space, with support available as needed.

A Senior Care Team Effort

Overcoming hoarding is not a journey a senior should have to embark on alone. With the collaborative effort of families, friends, and professionals, a path to a healthier, safer living environment can be found. Patience, empathy, and understanding are crucial.

For seniors and their families grappling with hoarding, know that support is available, and improvement is possible. Together, we can work towards reclaiming not just space, but peace of mind and quality of life. If you’d like to learn more about how a trained caregiver can support a senior loved one to live safely at home, feel free to contact one of our friendly and resourceful Amada Senior Care advisors. Click here to find an Amada Senior Care location near you.