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Is Your Loved One Hoarding…or Collecting?

Do you know a senior who has accumulated possessions over some time? Has their collection become overwhelming, taking up a large part of their home and posing a risk to the person’s health and safety?

If so, you might be wondering if their items are just regular clutter, or a sign of hoarding..

Studies have shown that 6% of people aged over 55 are impaired by hoarding, which is much higher than the estimated average of 2 – 4% across all age groups. Research has also indicated that hoarding habits increase as people get older, although it can be unclear why hoarding occurs.

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is the tendency for someone to save items that family and friends view as worthless – or even garbage. People who hoard seem to have difficulty parting with objects, which poses risks for people of all ages, especially seniors. The result is a cluttered home that can significantly impact the quality of life of older adults

The consequences are more pronounced if the senior has mobility challenges, as their risk of becoming injured from tripping or falling is increased. Also, exiting the home in an emergency is tricky if walking paths are obstructed. If medical assistance in the house is required, hoarding may hamper health responders from providing help in a timely fashion.

Out-of-control clutter also creates a significant fire hazard and negatively affects hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition.

What’s the difference between collecting and hoarding?

Collecting and hoarding are two different things, and it’s essential to make the distinction before we attempt to draw any conclusions about the person’s behaviour.

Whereas hoarding involves holding on to all sorts of different items and storing them haphazardly, collecting is a more focused activity. Collectors look for specific items, such as records, stamps, memorabilia, model trains, or other sets of objects. People who collect things display them with pride, keep them clean and organized, and don’t let collectibles interfere with the health and safety of their surroundings.

For example, you may know someone with a basement full of porcelain dolls. Even if they seem to be everywhere, they’re part of a collection and not necessarily indicative of a hoarding disorder.

Recognizing a hoarding disorder

It’s crucial not to try to diagnose a hoarding disorder on your own but rather seek out the help of a doctor who specializes in mental health. They will explore the symptoms that suggest hoarding behaviours, if needed. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Tendency to hold on to possessions, regardless of their value
  • Distress at the thought or suggestion of parting with their possessions
  • Excessive clutter that fills rooms and blocks passageways that can render space inaccessible or unusable
  • Collecting a large number of living animals – dozens or even hundreds – can create an unhealthy and unsafe environment for both the animals and humans 
  • Associated disorders such as indecisiveness, perfectionism, procrastination, disorganization, and distractibility

The mental health professional might find the hoarding is rooted in other mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

How to declutter your elderly loved one’s home

Helping someone who has been letting items pile up for some time can be overwhelming, especially if the person’s collection has taken over the home and is overflowing outside. 

Here are five tips that will help you make the person’s home safer and turn the decluttering process into a loving experience.

  1.  Take your time: Cleaning and organizing a loved one’s home can take months, even years, depending on the time you can commit to the task. Taking your time and setting small, realistic goals that consider your loved one’s ability to handle the changes will make the experience easier. This way, the person will also feel more in control of the process and not feel rushed or pressured.
  1. Talk about certain items: Show interest in specific items by asking the person about them. There might be an exciting family story behind an object that you never knew about. Be sure to be genuinely respectful and empathetic toward their feelings. Decluttering is a time for bonding, and learning about your loved one is a great way to do that.
  1. Celebrate successes: When you’ve reached a particular milestone, such as recycling old newspapers or emptying a room, it’s time to celebrate! This positive reinforcement upon achieving goals will help the person realize that the parting process isn’t as painful as they once believed. This approach will also strengthen their decision-making and organizing skills as you work together to reach the next goal.
  1. Focus on safety: Ensure that all pathways are clear of obstacles that the senior can bump into. Remove standing lamps and furniture that is too low or has sharp edges to protect the person’s well-being. 
  1. Make a List of Heirlooms: Help the senior make a list of what to do with cherished family heirlooms and valuable objects. Would they like to donate an object to a museum, sell it to support a charity, or promise it to a relative so it stays in the family? Make a plan with your loved one, which will reassure them that their cherished items are being treated with respect. 

I would consider the most essential part of helping a senior with decluttering is always to be respectful, caring, and patient. You’ll turn what could be a stressful experience into one of love and learning.If you have any questions about supporting an elderly loved one, or would like to learn about our homecare services that bring joy and sunshine into their life, please contact me or my team anytime.

About the Author

Michael Lu is the founder of CareHop, specializing in providing compassionate support for individuals and families touched by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

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