Seniors and Hoarding: Why Stuff Stacks and How to Cut Clutter

Tim Watt  |  June 10, 2014

Opening a door to be buried by a subsequent cascade of accumulated stuff may seem like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, but this is the reality in which many seniors find themselves living. Hoarding, or the buildup and inability to get rid of various objects over a period of time, can pose a serious concern for seniors. It may seem harmless at first, but hoarding behavior can put people's physical and mental health at risk. It's important to understand what can motivate hoarding, what the dangers are of this behavior and what can be done to help a hoarder de-clutter.

Why all the stuff?
According to the University of California, San Francisco, hoarding is reported to affect 2 to 5 percent of the adult population, and is demarcated from typical clutter by the fact that hoarding serves as a barrier to normal-functioning everyday life. A study conducted by UCSF assistant professor Monika Eckfield looked at 22 seniors over the age of 65 and found that even in instances where hoarding was present in earlier adulthood, the behavior tends to impact seniors much more than middle-aged adults.

So what causes people to hoard? The reasons are as diverse as the various collections of stuff you're likely to find in their homes. While for many, reluctance to clear out clutter may be the result of hyperactive sentimentality, this isn't always the case. In fact, according to CaregiverStress.com, an increase in the prevalence of hoarding can point to potential changes in the health of the senior. Especially in instances where the person has suffered a stroke or a change to their mobility capabilities, oftentimes the more mundane housekeeping aspects can fall by the wayside, which can eventually lead to a hoarding situation.

The impact of hoarding
It may seem harmless, but hoarding can have severe effects on the health and wellbeing of seniors. It may seem obvious that things such as dirty dishes accumulating in the home can pose a health hazard, but there are other less obvious concerns to be aware of. 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.

More importantly, UCSF reported that especially in instances where hoarding is a result of deteriorating health, it can actually prevent seniors from receiving appropriate medical care. It's common for those in a hoarding situation to feel uncomfortable letting caregivers enter their living space to administer treatment. More simply, older adults who hoard often lack the organization and wherewithal to keep on top of their various appointments.

Helping to cut clutter
It's tempting to rush into a senior's home with an army of trash bags and just start clearing everything out, but the reality is de-cluttering a hoarding situation takes patience and compassion. Compartmentalizing the task into smaller areas of the home or specific rooms is key, as the prospect of cleaning everything out is often far too daunting for the senior to undertake comfortably. Be sure to be compassionate and empathetic toward their sentimentality, but still encourage them to let go of various things they see as part of their past.

Small victories is the name of the game when it comes to cleaning out a cluttered home. For many, throwing away even one or two items can be a major event, so it's important that every step, no matter how small, is treated as the victory it is. Approach large tasks in smaller steps over a period of time. CaregiverStress.com suggested giving away, donating or throwing out a small amount of a larger collection to demonstrate to the senior that they are more capable of letting go and getting rid of things than they think they are.