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Hoarding (part 1)

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Q.  I just finished reading your column on “stuff” that discusses disposing of family items.  The last sentence caught my attention in that the children mentioned in the column wanted to avoid discussing this subject.  In my family, it is not the children, but my 84-year old father.  My dad is a hoarder. Since my mom passed away the problem has gotten worse.  He refuses to part with anything and rebuffs any attempt for a meaningful conversation.  The situation is a constant strain on our relationship and a source of never ending stress for me.  Can you address the subject from the parent’s perspective?  It’s a heavy burden for me.  M.E.

Dear M.E.

The burden is heavy with frustration.

Most of us have collected things – baseball cards, stamps, china tea cups or beer steins.  And it is common and sometimes easier for us to save rather than throw away things.  This is not a problem.

It becomes a problem when the habis of keeping or collecting useless things fill up a room or even a house.  Hoarders collect hundreds and even thousands of things and refuse to part with them despite family protests.  It becomes worse when it leads to health and fire hazards.

According to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, psychologist Randy O. Frost, a leading expert on hoarding behavior, indicates that this behavior is seen in illnesses of schizophrenia, dementia, eating disorders and mental retardation.  Approximately one in in four persons with dementia and one in five with schizophrenia hoard.  Most commonly it is found among patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  And a significant number of people with hoarding behavior are older.

Why do people hoard?  The National Center on Elder Abuse indicates that hoarders’ compulsion comes from having a great deal of anxiety in making decisions. By not deciding whether or not something should be thrown away, they avoid the anxiety of choosing.  When confronted with the problem, they tend to deny it.

Here are some other reasons for hoarding that are based on misconceptions.

The items have sentimental value.  The hoarder believes that throwing away things means “I am throwing away part of myself.”

Inability to organize.  A junk pile may be the only way the individual can sense some control and order.  The pile may be created by stacking the most important thing on top.

Always having the “just in case” items. Those who hoard may have an extreme sense of responsibility for people they care for and what is happening around them, and always wants to be prepared.

Extreme focus on control and perfection. If the individual throws away something, it’s gone forever.  What happens to the item now is in the hands of others and out of his or her control.

A fear of forgetting. The inability to remember prevents the individual from discarding anything because everything must be kept “within arm’s reach.”

Cristina M. Sorrentino at the Boston University School of Social Work published a piece for the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency suggesting some don’t and do’s.

  • Don’t use judgmental language.  Don’t say, “What a mess.” Imagine if you were ashamed about your home and someone entered your home and said that to you.  Additionally, hoarders are not receptive to such comments.
  • Don’t use words that devalue the possessions.  Hoarders do not react well when someone describes their things as trash, garbage or junk.  However they are aware that others do not view their items as they do.
  • Don’t let your non-verbal behavior indicate what you are thinking.  Hoarders notice and are sensitive to frowns and grimaces.
  • Don’t make suggestions about the person’s belongings.  Suggestions about throwing things away, although well-intentioned, typically are not well-received.
  • Don’t try to persuade or argue.  Actually such arguments have the opposite effects.  The hoarder often talks themselves into keeping items.
  • Don’t touch the person’s belongings without permission.  Hoarders have strong feelings and beliefs about their things and find it upsetting if another touches them.

Next week we’ll talk about the “what to do” list.

In the meantime, here are some resources which might be helpful.  Beach Cities Health District at 310 374-3426, ext. 502 or South Bay Senior Services at 310 325-2141 for a care manager to conduct an assessment; the fire department if fire and safety hazards are apparent; the National Association of Professional Organizers at for professional organizers; and the Los Angeles County Self-Help Recovery Exchange at (310) 305-8878 for support group referrals.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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