How To Help Seniors With a Hoarding Problem

Apartment of a pensioner who suffers from compulsive hoarding, littered with trash and books

If you have a friend or family member who is a senior citizen and struggling with hoarding, you may feel at a loss as to how to help them. While it can be difficult to watch a loved one suffer from this condition, there are things that you can do to ease their burden and help them get the treatment they need.

In this article, we offer tips for friends, family members, and caregivers who want to help an older adult with hoarding, plus discuss reasons seniors hoard and why hoarding is dangerous. 

man hoarder with stuff piles sitting in the room

1. What Is Hoarding?

While most people have a few items that they hold onto for sentimental reasons, hoarding is a different matter entirely. Hoarding is defined as the persistent accumulation of possessions that fill up living spaces, regardless of their value. For many people who hoard, the objects they collect become more important than even the people in their lives.

Hoarding is a complex and often misunderstood disorder that can have a debilitating effect on both the sufferer and their loved ones. While it can be seen as a simple case of being messy or disorganized, hoarding is actually a serious condition that can cause immense emotional and physical distress. In some cases, compulsive hoarding can be linked to mental health issues such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Alzheimer’s disease, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It can also be a coping mechanism for people who are dealing with anxiety or depression.

One of the most obvious signs of hoarding is an excessive accumulation of possessions, often to the point where entire rooms are filled from floor to ceiling with clutter. Hoarders may suffer from feelings of shame or embarassment about their condition, which can lead to social isolation. In severe cases, hoarders may even put themselves and their families at risk by living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

2. Why Do Seniors Hoard?

While it may seem like odd behavior, hoarding is actually quite common among senior citizens. There are a number of reasons why older adults may start to hoard.

A Fear of Getting Older

For many elderly people, their years of accumulation have led to a house full of stuff. As they downsize or move to a smaller home, they may feel reluctant to get rid of things, even if they don’t need them. In some cases, seniors may hoard out of a fear of being unable to replace items if they need them in the future. 

Changes in Mental Health

Additionally, seniors may hoard due to changes in their mental health, including dementia and depression. The act of hoarding can provide a sense of comfort and familiarity in an increasingly confusing world.

In fact, the official, medical term for someone who suffers from compulsive hoarding is Diogenes Syndrome, also known as hoarding disorder. This condition is characterized by a lack of social interaction, poor personal hygiene, and an obsession with acquiring and hoarding objects. While the exact cause of Diognenes Syndrome is unknown, it is believed to be linked to mental illness and/or other cognitive decline.

The Result of a Trauma

In some cases, compulsive hoarding can be the result of a traumatic event, such as abuse, neglect, or even extreme poverty. Studies have shown that hoarders often have a history of trauma, and that their symptoms tend to worsen during times of stress.

Whatever the reason, it is important to be understanding and patient with seniors who hoard.

3. The Dangers Of Hoarding For Seniors

While many people think of hoarding as a quirk or an episode of reality television, it is actually a serious mental disorder that can have disastrous consequences, especially for seniors.

Financial Problems

Financial trouble is a very common danger of hoarding. When a person reaches retirement age, they are often on a fixed income. This can make it difficult to keep up with the cost of living, let alone the cost of extra purchases or repairs on a home that is damaged as the result of hoarding behaviors.

Strained Relationships

For many people, their home is their sanctuary; it’s a place where they can relax and feel comfortable. But for people who suffer from hoarding, their home can be a source of great stress.

The clutter and disarray can make it difficult to move around, and the constant mess can be an emotional drain. Seniors—for whom isolation is already a common issue—may lose the energy to leave their house, but be too embarrassed to allow friends and family members to visit them at home. Those who do visit may feel like they are walking on eggshells around the hoarders, afraid to upset them or trigger a negative reaction.

While hoarding may seem like a personal issue, it can have a profound impact on those closest to the hoarder, too.

Eviction notice Frustrated old man sitting and reading the eviction notice he just received

Eviction

One of the most common problems associated with hoarding is eviction. When a person’s home is filled with so much stuff that it becomes a fire hazard or health risk, their landlord, or even the city in which they live, may have no choice but to evict them and/or condemn the property.

In some cases, the senior may find new places to live, but untreated hoarding habits often lead to them being evicted again and again. In extreme situations, older adults who suffer from compulsive hoarding end up homeless.

Health Risks

As people age, they may become increasingly isolated and unable to take care of their living space—especially if it’s full of stuff. The combination of old age, isolation, and compulsive hoarding can lead to serious home safety dangers, such as trip hazards, fire hazards, and pest infestations. In severe cases, seniors who hoard may even be at risk of starvation if they are unable to access food to the state of their homes.

4. How Can Friends, Family, And Caregivers Help Seniors With Hoarding Problems?

If you know and love someone who is struggling with hoarding, there are a number of ways you can help, as well as some important things to remember.

Do: Learn as much as you can about hoarding disorder

Begin by trying to learn as much as you can about hoarding and its root causes. This will help you to understand why your friend or family member is behaving in this way, and may provide insight about how best to help them.

Do: Listen and show empathy

Seniors who struggle with compulsive hoarding are not likely to use words like “junk” or “garbage” when referring to their possessions, and you should not either. Instead, follow the senior’s lead and use the same descriptors they do—for example, “collection” or “things.” Remaining empathetic will go a long way in building trust.

Do: Focus on safety

Despite their struggles, an older adult with hoarding tendencies is well aware that they shouldn’t be living in a mess. Instead of repeatedly bringing up the obvious, let them know that you are concerned about their safety and offer to help them eliminate major hazards.

Do: Offer to help

Once you have built up some trust, you can offer to help. Deciding what to get rid of and when can feel like a debilitating decision for someone with hoarding disorder, so make sure they know you are willing to work with them at their own pace.

Do: Offer help finding professional support

Recognizing that there is a problem is just the first of many steps on the road to recovery. Encourage your senior friend or family member to seek professional help by offering to connect them with local therapists, treatment programs, and support groups. You can even offer to drive and/or accompany them to appointments as a means of moral support.

Dont: Be judgemental

Compulsive hoarding is often accompanied by feelings of immense guilt and shame. There is no need to add to the embarrassment with judgemental words or body language. 

Don’t: Touch any possessions without permission

Though it may seem obvious to you that something belongs in the trash, it is likely viewed by someone with a hoarding disorder as something important. Remain respectful, and ask permission before touching, moving, or removing any items. This will send the important message that they are in control of the decluttering process.   

5. Resources For Seniors With Hoarding Disorder

Hoarding Cleanup is a nation-wide directory of hoarding cleanup services and related mental health providers specializing in hoarding behavior. The organization also offers online support groups for hoarders and their family members and friends. 

If you or a family member is looking for help getting organized, then consider reaching out to the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals. Their website includes a directory of professional organizers that specialize in hoarding behavior. 

For help understanding Diogenes Syndrome, hoarding disorder, and hoarding behaviors, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is an excellent resource. 

Finally, the International OC Foundation: Hoarding Center provides referrals for resources, education, clinics, therapists, and support groups local to your area.   

People Also Ask

What does it mean to hoard?

Hoarding is a complex and often misunderstood condition that can have a profound impact on an individual’s life. Put simply, hoarding is the excessive accumulation of possessions, to the point where they begin to interfere with everyday activities.

While everyone has some level of attachment to their belongings, for people with a hoarding disorder, these possessions take on a special significance and become extremely difficult to let go of.

What are the signs of hoarding?

People who hoard tend to feel an intense need to possess certain objects, even if those objects are of no real value. They may feel highly anxious about letting go of anything, even things that are damaged or useless.

As a result, their homes become cluttered with piles of stuff, and they may have difficulty using rooms for their intended purpose. Hoarding can cause conflict with family and friends, and it can lead to financial problems and even eviction.

What is the best way to help a hoarder?

If you suspect that a friend or family member may be hoarding, the best thing you can do is to start a conversation; express your concerns and let them know you are there to help. Be aware: many hoarders may be unable to admit that there is a problem. You should also try to educate yourself about Diogenes Syndrome and its potential causes.

This will help you to understand the situation and to be more patient. Finally, don’t try to force them to get rid of their things. This will only make them feel more anxious and could even exacerbate the hoarding behavior. Just take things one step at a time and offer your support. 

Conclusion 

There is nothing easy about watching a beloved friend or family member struggle with hoarding disorder, known also as Diogenes Syndrome.

Though it may seem like a daunting task, there are many things that family and friends can do to help a senior who is hoarding, including listening, helping to improve safety in the home, and encouraging professional help. Sometimes, simply being there for an older adult who hoards can make all the difference in the world. 

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