Downsizing and Real Estate

2/21/2022 | By Megan Mullen

Seniors Guide looks at a concern that adult children sometimes have, Is my parent a hoarder? We examine how to recognize hoarding and we look at causes and solutions.

“Reality” television has led many to believe that hoarders are objects of ridicule. But most hoarders, especially seniors, are ill, lonely, or have suffered emotional blows. The possessions they have gathered over time soothe and reassure them. But these are only superficial indicators of deeper problems.

Hoarding disorder is a condition where people have persistent difficulty letting go of their accumulated possessions. So, although today’s society encourages consumption, hoarding goes beyond typical behavior. Hoarders can be so attached to their many belongings that they’ll fight to the bitter end if someone tries to remove them—even if their purpose is to help the hoarder stay safe and secure.

We’ll examine the situation of having a senior parent with hoarding disorder: its causes, possible treatment protocols, signs to watch for, and possible ways to help remedy the situation.

What to look for in asking, Is my parent a hoarder?

In asking, Is my parent a hoarder, ask also if the the causes may be more innocent?

If you’re the type of person who is organized or minimalist, hobbyist collections and general clutter may seem problematic. It’s important to identify the issue properly to avoid extreme, unnecessary, and judgmental responses.

1) Collectors

Collectors have a passion for specific categories of items, such as baby dolls, tea sets, antique tools, etc. Typically, collectors organize and display their items. Hoarders, on the other hand, lose the capacity to organize and display. Instead, their possessions pile up and obstruct use of living areas. Instead of a living space, the home has turned into a storage facility.

2) Clutter

If a person has insufficient resources to address a buildup of “stuff,” these items may build up in a disorderly mess. Perhaps the person no longer has the physical abilities to organize, store, or dispose of things. Maybe they don’t have sufficient storage space, or they lack the resources to purchase shelves or cabinets. Ask if your loved one is willing for you or someone else to come in and help sort what’s worth keeping and dispose of what’s not.

Related: FAQs about downsizing possessions

3) Signs of a problem

If you suspect your beloved parent is hoarding, you should look for and address the signs before there are unfortunate consequences, like personal injury, municipal action and fines, or even structural collapse. Look for:

  • Stacked belongings that haven’t been cleaned for a while. Don’t be surprised to find more than just dust; the piles could have accumulated mold and other allergens, vermin, discarded food, and other problems.
  • Little to no room to move. Be on the lookout for tripping hazards, poorly balanced piles, even “mystery pets” running underfoot.
  • Useless junk, such as broken or badly soiled items or gadgets that don’t work.
  • Compromised structural areas. Hoarders can’t fix what they can’t see, so there might be hidden damage throughout the home.
  • Defensiveness. The hoarding parent bars you from certain rooms and won’t let you touch, much less move, anything.
  • A municipality has intervened for the safety of the hoarder themselves and other community residents.

Causes of Hoarding in Seniors

As people age, many face a dramatic decline in quality social interactions, leaving them lonely and feeling distant from others. Thus, they might engage in behaviors that temporarily help them cope with these unpleasant feelings.

In many cases, these involve accumulating “things” – whether keepsakes from happier times or succumbing to the lure of new gadgets advertised in the media. Some seniors adopt pets, cherishing their affection but unable to care for them properly. Others hoard food, which might have a metabolic cause (like untreated diabetes) or a societal one (like food insecurity).

Ways to Help a Hoarder Parent

Finding that you’re the adult child of a hoarding senior might shock and frustrate you. Hoarders often face conflict with others, including loved ones who encourage them to dispose of the clutter and filth in their homes. So first and foremost, make sure your hoarder parent knows you care and want to help. That alone sends an encouraging message.

If you wonder if it’s okay to let your parent continue hoarding, the answer is “probably not.” It’s wise to intervene for the parent’s safety and the health of the larger community. If public authorities come to the home, invite them in, but stay there to calm and reassure your parent.

If the authorities don’t come, persist in your clean-out efforts regardless. Of course, there is no guarantee that your parent will budge, but who better than family to persuade them that they’ll be better off without all the junk and garbage? Consider bringing in an outside service to do the dirty work. Professional downsizing specialists are experienced and trained in decluttering, organizing, moving, and packing.

Keep the conversation about all the possessions open and active. And if you can squeeze in at least a little cleaning, that might lighten the atmosphere. Maybe start by saying, for example, “I’m just going to wash the dishes in the sink.”

Is Hoarding Treatable?

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment regimen for hoarding disorder, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common form used with hoarders. If you believe these sessions help address the problem and your parent is healthy enough, you might try easing them into a self-care routine.

Psychotherapy might also help you convince your parent to leave their crowded (and filthy) home and move into a senior apartment or care community. They can get a fresh start, participate in activities, and find new acquaintances. There is also a research-based argument that pharmacotherapy might also help hoarders.

Although hoarding disorder represents one of the few new diagnoses in the DSM-5, most research on the topic, while reflecting top-notch scholarship, nonetheless leaves unanswered questions about the condition and most effective treatments.

Final Thoughts

Hoarding is and always has been part of human nature. It was a survival strategy for long-ago ancestors, then an aspect of collecting as a hobby. Today, it has gained fuel from all-encompassing consumerism, aka, the “consumerist palliative.”

The distancing and dissolution of the nuclear family that once cared for its elders have combined with the expected mental and physical frailty of aging to hasten the development of hoarding disorder. So it’s not surprising that so many seniors now surround themselves with meaningless possessions and their short-lived value.

Megan Mullen

Megan Mullen is a freelance writer, librarian, and former college professor. Senior life is one of her niches (and a personal interest). Megan enjoys using her writing and research skills to create well-crafted web content and other publications.