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No Laughing Matter: Hoarding Disrupts Families, Endangers Health, and Costs Thousands to Remedy

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Hoarding is one of those little-understood habits that people sometimes laugh about or make light of (or even feature on so-called reality television shows). But you are the adult child of a hoarder, you know the issue is no laughing matter. This article that appeared a few months ago on the NextAvenue website, written by columnist Emily Gurnon, says that hoarding is a psychological disorder that can create special problems for older adults and their loved ones. If you or someone you know is affected by hoarding, the NextAvenue article might provide some good resources and coping tips.

Hoarding Considered a Mental Disorder

NextAvenue’s Gurnon says hoarding is not the same as clutter. “Hoarding is not just extravagant collecting or extreme messiness,” she explains. Hoarding is considered a mental illness. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of hoarding: extreme clutter creates a constant risk of falling; kitchen clutter may make it hard to use a stove or countertop, which can trigger malnourishment or food-borne illness; embarrassment over hoarding behavior usually results in isolation, which only makes the problem worse. Besides dementia, hoarding disorder is the only mental health disorder that increases in severity and prevalence with age.

To get a better handle on hoarding, we also turned to this article from the website called Daily Caring. Hoarding, says the website, happens “when someone compulsively buys and saves objects even though they have so many belongings that they’re creating health and safety issues in their home.” Well-meaning family and friends may offer to intervene and help clear the mess, only to be rebuffed. “Seniors who are hoarders resist your attempts to get rid of anything and often say their possessions are useful, or needed for future use, or unique.” Sometimes, they claim their stuff is “irreplaceable” or has great sentimental value. They may buy large quantities of items they don’t use and don’t really want because of some “incredible deal” they couldn’t pass up.

As Many as 1 in 20 Affected by Hoarding

The cause of hoarding isn’t clear, and experts don’t really know how widespread the disorder is although some say between two and five percent of adults may be affected to some degree. “Doctors and psychologists think that hoarding could be a sign that someone has dementia, other cognitive disorders, or a mental illness like OCD, depression, or anxiety,” says the Daily Caring article. Regardless of the cause, the consequences of hoarding are serious. This 2014 article from the Sunrise Senior Living blog said, “It may seem harmless, but hoarding can have severe effects on the health and wellbeing of seniors. Papers stacked on beds, tables, bookshelves and even kitchen surfaces can pose a dangerous fire hazard, and boxes of trinkets clogging walkways are common culprits for encouraging slips and falls.” Even worse, “[hoarding] can actually prevent seniors from receiving appropriate medical care [because] those in a hoarding situation feel uncomfortable letting caregivers enter their living space to administer treatment.”  Living with severe disorganization also causes hoarders to tend to miss doctor’s appointments and overlook taking and refilling prescriptions.

As NextAvenue emphasizes, when loved ones attempt to intervene to help a hoarder, things quickly get complicated.  “The attachments [hoarders] have to the objects are fierce,” writes Gurnon, “and they place those values ahead of others.”  She quotes one medical expert who explains that hoarders “tend to not recognize that their beliefs are dysfunctional or abnormal. And then [they] think the rest of us are wasteful or irresponsible or unethical.” For that reason, when adult children of hoarders attempt to take matters into their own hands, it can do more harm than good. As San Francisco-based psychologist Michael Tompkins told NextAvenue, “The classic story is they give Mom a 10-day cruise in the Bahamas. While she’s gone, they come in and clean the place out without her consent. Instead of being happy, as the children may expect, the older adult feels betrayed.” The trauma of this intervention triggers deep hurt and mistrust and can sever the parent-child relationship entirely. On top of that, says Gurnon, the effort can totally backfire. “The older adult becomes less likely to leave the home, increasing his or her isolation. And the parent’s attachment to collected objects worsens.”

Get Educated Before Stepping In

Instead of an ill-conceived intervention, NextAvenue emphasizes that the first thing adult children or close friends of hoarders must do is educate themselves on the disorder. This is especially important, says psychologist Michael Tompkins, because “older adults with hoarding disorder are generally not open to treatment for the condition.” Instead, the best approach may be harm reduction: “You embrace the assumption that as long as the behavior continues, we’re going to minimize the risk,” Tompkins suggests. You’ll find much more information plus excellent resources about hoarding disorder here on the website of the International OCD Foundation.

Education is the first step in dealing with something as serious as hoarding, and it’s also the first step in planning for something as important as retirement. Here at AgingOptions our goal is to help you experience the kind of fruitful and secure retirement you’ve always hoped for, never worrying about running out of money, becoming a burden to loved ones, or finding yourself being forced unwillingly into institutional care. The key to this type of retirement is a LifePlan from AgingOptions – your individualized blueprint that blends financial, health, legal, housing and family components into one all-encompassing retirement strategy.

The New Year is the ideal time to learn more. Wherever you are on your retirement journey, we hope you’ll join Rajiv soon at a free LifePlanning Seminar, an information-packed session that will open your eyes to a new way of thinking about and planning for retirement. There’s absolutely no obligation. You’ll find a complete calendar of currently-scheduled seminars here on our Live Events page. It’s never too late to begin! We’ll look forward to meeting you soon at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar.

(originally reported at

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