The problem has been around for ages, but more recently hoarding has come onto the radar of those who work with seniors through home care services. There are the extreme cases we hear about in the news: an elderly person dies in a house fire when firefighter’s access to doors and windows is blocked by piles of newspapers and magazines; a frail senior who dies when a mountain of accumulated “treasure” falls and traps him in a corner of his living room with no available route to food or water.
The mental health world disagrees about what category hoarding falls into. Psychiatrist Frederick Schaerf says “hoarding is a behavior, and all behaviors have a mental state behind them. The problem with hoarding is that there is not just one mental state behind the symptoms.” When the hoarder is a younger person, it is generally considered to be an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), like obsessive hand washing – only much messier. But generally, those with OCD-related hoarding recognize that their behavior is extreme and try to resist their compulsion.
When an elderly person hoards, Alzheimer’s or dementia is often the cause. The senior may begin to save items because they feel confused and overwhelmed. They may fear that their memories will be lost without tangible evidence of the past. Accumulating more and more stuff can also feed a need for comfort. A senior with a history of anxiety, when faced with aging and the possibility of outliving their resources, may begin to save because they feel overwhelmed by what lies ahead. As dementia patients lose track of the present these items become more and more important, and their home more and more cluttered.
Family members are often challenged to keep up with the daily needs of their own lives, let alone those of an aging loved one. But when that loved one also develops a hoarding problem, the situation can quickly spiral out of control. Attempts to remove items from a hoarder’s home are typically met with resistance and fear. Most families will need to turn to mental health experts to address the problem and help the senior into a safer living situation. But there are also ways that families can avoid a small problem from growing quickly out of hand.
Hiring a trained caregiver to provide home care services from a licensed home care agency like Family Resource Home Care will provide families with regular monitoring of their loved one. If a hoarding problem exists or begins to develop, caregivers will help with such simple tasks as sorting through mail and newspapers, organizing photos and keeping the kitchen and bathrooms clean and organized. A good caregiver is a simple preventative to a potentially dangerous problem.