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rojo's avatar

Compulsive hoarding: thought and ideas?

Asked by rojo (21960points) November 8th, 2011

I have a question concerning compulsive hoarding in the elderly, specifically, my mother. Both she and my father had been this way for years. Their home was generally clean but very full mainy of things that most would consider not worth much, in fact there is one unused bedroom that you cannot get into it is so full of stuff. Both also had what I would call bibliomania. The entire house is full of books and magazines.
My father died at home this spring and as you can imagine, this was very traumatic for my mother. In the following weeks we tried to clear out some of my dads things but any attempt was met with hysterics from mom so we gave up until the wound had time to heal. It has been nine months now, dads clothes still pack his closet, chest and even the floor on his side of the bed.
So, basically, nothing has changed and nothing will change without major intervention and subsequent trauma to her psyche. The only reason there is not more in the home is because mom has become even more reclusive since dads death, rarely going out. At 79, most of the friends she had have also passed on and she has no interest in meeting new people or even interacting socially. Family is fine, in small doses.
She is in generally poor health. Her doctor once told her “You have seven major things wrong with you, I am just trying to keep you alive!”. She is overweight, has diabetes, hives and, over the past 3 years, dementia. Overall she is happy, in no small part to the dementia, but gets morose over the death of my father. She has developed paranoia, certain that people are talking about her, watching her and planning to put her in a nursing home. She is sometimes lonely but generally is content to putter around her home and yard, read her books and magazines and live in her memories.
So, my question is: Do we allow her to live her life out peacefully, surrounded by way too many things but things that comfort her, providing the medications that she now takes to allieve the medical problems she now has until she either passes away or descends so far into her dementia that she has no idea where she is? Or do we look to aggressively treat the hoarding, disrupting her life and generally causing a tremendous emotional upheaval that could also hasten her passing?
I apologize for the length of this question but I wanted to get as much info as possible. I do not think there is an easy or painless answer to this question, you can probably tell from the tone of the actual question which way I am leaning but I feel I am making a decision based on what is best for the family, not for mom.
I am mainly looking to get different points of view.

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19 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Wow, my sympathies on your situation.

I think, if it was me, that I would mostly let her be unless the hoarding has come to the point of being a fire hazard or some other danger.

Perhaps you could approach her and ask which things she was willing to give up to make more room in her house. But, n the whole, I would let it go.

You will need to watch the dementia. Is she safe cooking?

Seaofclouds's avatar

Is the stuff in the house posing a potential safety risk for her? If things aren’t posing a safety risk for her, I would say let her be. If there are things that are posing safety risks to her (such as narrow walkways or stuff on the floors that she could trip over), I would try to approach those areas and recommend picking up the things and moving them to a better area.

smilingheart1's avatar

At 79 I would leave it alone until she needs to be relocated to a special care facility. My mother is 83 now, still in her own home and though in generally good health physically and mentally, mama mia, she has a lot of “stuff.” The things comfort her, although she has to look hard to locate something, especially come up with a paper, if she needs it.

These ladies have seen times when material items were sometimes scarce and they stock piled. Plus they had a way of adapting to become very resourceful. So the thinking is partially that ‘with all these things around me, I can find a way to make do in a pinch.’

With regards to the books and paper, it sounds like your folks in their more vibrant years had a love of learning and knowledge and perhaps some particular interests that caused them to collect the magazines, books, printed material.

I echo @marinelife, in that I sure hope she can safely navigate around in the clutter.

I feel things are going to turn out just fine because you recognize that this needs to be more about honouring and caring for her in the way she needs as a grieving elder than about taking care of business from a family perspective.

Coloma's avatar

It’s usually associated with obsessive compulsive disorders and other psychiatric conditions.
I’d seek out a therapist that works with this condition for a consultation, but, unless the conditions are un-hygenic or a fire hazard I don’t know if there is much you can do.

Remember that your mothers brain/mind is not functioning in a “normal” manner so attempts to be rational will most likely not work.

I don’t really know what’s best for your mother but if her safety is comprimised by clutter than could cause her to fall, injure herself or be a fire or health hazaed I think some sort of intervention is a good idea.

People don’t just wake up one day with a mental illness, most likely she has had issues for years and the paranoia may or may not be related to the onset of dementia.

rojo's avatar

@marinelife @Seaofclouds @smilingheart1 We have done our best to keep the halls clear and the main floor areas. She I reluctant to let us do anything in the bedroom, probably because of Dads stuff. Is it safe? No, it is safer however. We have tried to eliminate any tripping or tipping hazards, although there are still rugs that worry me, egress hazards on all but the door to the deck; she keeps piling things in front of that door. The paranoia aspect.
My sister, who lives there in town, visits twice a day, makes sure the meds are taken, there is food in the house and cooks supper most of time.
@Coloma The paranoia has been developing in conjunction with the dementia. As her memory fades, the fear gets worse. It was extremely bad after dad died but has improved in the subsequent months. It only rears its ugly head when she is put into unfamiliar situations (car trips, going out) or when she gets morose. The doctor is treating both the paranoia and dementia as best can be. Before he died, dad used to get himself so wound up and exhibited symptoms of paranoia as well. They eased off (but did not go away) when the doctor forbid him to listen to talk radio or watch Fox news all day. Small doses still worked him up.

Judi's avatar

I went through something similar with my MIL except it was drinking and mixing it with pharmaceuticals. After arguing with her and trying to get her to change her behavior, (judging her) I decided that she was an adult and has the right to live (and die) on her own terms. I want her final memories of me to be those of love and support. I asked her forgiveness for my judgmental attitude and now I just love her the way she is. Life is to short to spend those last precious years arguing and fighting.

My sister teaches Validation therapy to elder support givers. It might be helpful with your mom. Here is a snippet:

__Try to understand why your loved one is behaving a certain way; what’s the trigger or underlying concern? Then figure out a way to address it. So, for example, if your loved one is hoarding or hiding items, ask what he or she is fearful of losing. Give a “safe box” that can be used to store those items.__
__Don’t get caught up in whether or not something makes sense. A person with dementia may not be able to piece everything together, but their emotions are still valid. In fact, their distress or anxiety can be amplified when they aren’t being understood. Accept that your loved one’s emotions have more validity then the logic that leads to them.__
__Ask specific questions about how certain actions or situations make your loved one feel. After you receive an explanation of those feelings, validate them with phrases that show your support, such as, “I’d be upset too, if that happened to me” or “I understand why you feel that way.“__
__Allow your loved one a graceful exit and be mindful of his or her ego!__

rojo's avatar

@judi Thank you and I am going to pass this on to my sibs.

Coloma's avatar


Indeed, acceptance and non-judgement is the highest road as long as there is no safety issues that might effect others like a house fire that could burn down others homes.

wundayatta's avatar

Going to a nursing home can be a relief for some people, even though they protest before they go. They can find more friends and they can feel safe moving around with the support they get there.

It can be hard to tell before they go. You say your mother is happy in dimentia, and maybe she would be happy whatever happens. It could be a new experience that she treats with delight because of the newness.

Hoarding, I think, is about controlling your environment. You don’t want to lose anything because it could turn out to be crucial for some reason. Also, I think we believe it helps with memory. Things are memory objects and they can remind us of things we have forgotten. Books, in particular, are like experiences we have lived, even if only in our imaginations. Taking away a book is like taking away a part of your life. The problem is deciding which parts of your life you can part with.

flutherother's avatar

Compulsive hoarding is more common than you think and there was a great programme about it on the BBC recently. The need to keep junk is inexplicable to the average person but it can be so deep rooted and of such emotional value to some people that it seems cruel and insensitive to pressure them to get rid of it. It is a difficult condition to understand or deal with. There is a help organisation that can give information on hoarding and its treatment.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Hoarding…? Dear Gawd please stop me NOW before it’s too late.

I confess. I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarders hoarder. And I’m only 48 years old. There are half a dozen unopened UPS boxes in my garage right now. Purchases from online stores and I don’t even know what is in them. I’ve got to stop.

Judi's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies ; You should start selling on ebay since so much stuff is brand new.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I swear… just as I pressed send, came a knock at the door. FedX just dropped off my new generator tailpipe… yay!

I wouldn’t even have opened it, but felt guilty not doing so after my last comment.

And yes, I eBay quite a bit. It’s just that I keep a lot more than I sell.

YARNLADY's avatar

My Mother In Law was the same way about Dad’s stuff, right down to the spare bedroom full of stuff, plus half of their bedroom. He died a year and a half ago. This issue was finally resolved when she started asking to be take to various independent living homes in the area. She had fainted in the hallway and was found on the floor by the housekeeper. We don’t know how long she been laying there.

She chose a home which was under construction. The management had regular luncheon meetings of the prospective tenants to meet each other. Slowly over a four month period, she separated all her belongings and allowed the family members to cart it all away. On the final month, nearly all the junk was removed.

We arranged to have a moving truck to bring home anything she didn’t want to part with, and she did not know or care what we did with it. She choose to believe we would use it in our home, and we have made use of more than half of the items we brought.

She is very happy and secure in the home, which is like a large apartment building with a restaurant style dining room, game room, and many other amenities.

rojo's avatar

@wundayatta I worry about the nursing home for several reasons. She has always been introverted, not unfriendly but decidedly not outgoing. She lives in abject terror at the thought of living in one. When Dad died she was sick with fear that she would be immediately put in one. Her dementia has brought back old childhood memories of people being taken out of their home and never coming back. I am afraid it would be a death sentence. At home, with her things, she is content with bouts of paranoia and depression. Away, she is paranoid and depressed with little or no happiness. This is one of the reasons she is home now and that I am leaning toward leaving her where she is happy. You are right on about the books, mags, etc. The only worrisome thing is that she re-reads the newspaper several times a day and gets convinced that they are reprinting things from day to day. That concerns me but she takes solace in her reading.

zensky's avatar

Throw stuff out.

EmptyNest's avatar

I wouldn’t traumatize your mother—and let me say that I’m so sorry! It takes at least a year to be over the mourning. However, if there is a fire hazzard, you can address it that way. Maybe big metal boxes or containers to store some of the books and magazines. I’d leave her alone about the clothing until she is ready for that. Maybe while you’re in the process, you can throw some things away, like magazines without her even realizing it. I wish you the best and let us know how things turn out.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I would allow for it.

skfinkel's avatar

It took me a long time to be able to move my late husband’s clothes. I suspect this is a common phenomenon of mourning, and it can’t be rushed. Of course, your mother’s dementia is a huge complicating factor, but your question did show which way you are leaning, and from my point of view it is the direction which is most caring and supportive of her. Her paranoia about being moved seems to have a hint of reality—which makes things more complicated for all of you. This is obviously a very difficult situation, and I wish you the best in your solving of this most challenging of problems.

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