Solutions to Senior Hoarding


Senior hoarding issues are tough for carers to manage, both physically and emotionally. Hoarding can cause safety hazards like increased fall risk, blocked emergency access, and unsanitary living conditions. To help care for a hoarder, The Australian Carers Guide explains the difference between a pack rat and a hoarder as well as the emotions behind the behavior. They also share tips on how to emotionally support a hoarder and get them the help they need to make a change.

Understanding the emotional side of this behavior helps you work toward effective solutions in a kind and gentle way.

Hoarding is especially dangerous for seniors

Hoarding is dangerous for almost everyone, but it’s especially harmful for seniors.

They’re more likely to fall in a crowded home and their health will be harmed by unsanitary or hazardous living conditions.

Senior hoarding issues could also indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or mental illness. In other cases, it could also be caused by Diogenes Syndrome. This is a condition that affects some seniors near the end of life. Diogenes Syndrome is characterised by hoarding, self- neglect, social withdrawal, and a refusal to accept help

Hoarding is often accompanied by some degree of anxiety, which makes it difficult to treat. It is also tough for families to watch. And because hoarders tend to self-isolate, it makes their emotional well-being even more fragile.

When you’re caring for someone who hoards, it’s helpful to learn more about senior hoarding issues.

Understanding the emotional side of this behavior helps you work toward effective solutions in a kind and gentle way.

The difference between a pack rat and a hoarder

Many people like to hang onto mementos and multiples of useful items for both nostalgic and practical reasons.

But there are key differences between someone who collects and someone who hoards.

A hoarder suffers from an inability to discard items and often acquires useless items.

They keep stacks of unnecessary items, like junk mail and old newspapers. They might move things from pile to pile, but will never throw anything away.

Many people have a few items they feel emotionally attached to, but a hoarder has an excessive attachment to many possessions and will be uncomfortable if somebody touches them or asks to borrow their items.

They’ll also feel unable to get rid of any possessions and will end up living in cluttered spaces that are often unsafe, unsanitary, and/or hazardous.

The difference between a collector and a hoarder is that when someone is hoarding, their daily life is negatively impacted.

Trauma can trigger hoarding

Recently, it has been found that people who have hoarding symptoms are also more likely to have experienced a traumatic event in life.

Do your best not to judge and remember that they greatly value the items you see as junk.

It could be that hoarding is a coping mechanism to deal with grief or loss.

This is important to consider if your older adult has only recently started the hoarding behavior.

They could be trying to fill an emotional hole left by the trauma of losing a spouse, moving to an unfamiliar place, or a similarly significant life change.

The emotional effect of senior hoarding issues

Even though hoarding can be a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety, trauma, or other mental struggles, it doesn’t provide real relief.

In addition, hoarding behavior often comes with poor decision making, procrastination, and a lack of organisation.

These impact all aspects of life and make it more difficult to have good quality of life. And because hoarding is isolating, seniors who hoard typically have limited social interactions. They may even push you away or avoid you, damaging your relationship.

People’s perceptions of hoarders can negatively impact a hoarder as well. It’s easy for others to see hoarders as dirty or lazy, and those judgments can be difficult for them to hear and handle.

Why do they struggle to let go of possessions?

Hoarding is a complex and layered behavior.

A hoarder could be dealing with any number of symptoms and conditions. These can range from indecisiveness to anxiety and from trauma to social isolation.

Using hoarding as a coping mechanism could mean that there‘s something in the person’s life that is just too painful to face.

Clutter builds up and provides comfort to the hoarder. Letting go of that comfort can feel excruciating.

In fact, hoarders can develop such strong attachments to their possessions that these items become more valuable to them than the people in their lives. Getting rid of something so valuable would feel similar to the extreme grief of losing a loved one.

That’s why if someone forces a hoarder to get rid of these items, their anxiety can intensify to unimaginable levels.

So even though it may seem like the most straightforward solution, do your best to not throw items away without permission or jump into a big cleanup without help from mental health professionals. It would be too emotionally distressing.

And if you do get rid of things without their approval, it will likely make them see you as an untrustworthy person. That makes it harder for you to continue helping them.

Do your best not to judge and remember that they greatly value the items you see as junk.

A hoarder needs professional help to deal with their serious emotional issues before they can cope with cleaning up.

What emotional help do hoarders need?

Not only would a forced cleanup cause extreme emotional distress, the person you care for will immediately return to their hoarding ways and fill up the space again.

What works better is to help your older adult see that hoarding is a problem.

That doesn’t mean shaming the person.

Instead, an empathetic and rational discussion (or several discussions) will help them gain the courage to do what’s best for themselves.

Start by helping them see that a change needs to be made for their own safety.

If the hoarding is linked to a traumatic event, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often an effective treatment. CBT helps the person cope with the emotions from the trauma and learn to manage their grief in a healthier way.

And even if the hoarding isn’t linked to a traumatic event, therapy can still be helpful. Hoarding can’t truly be fixed until the root of the problem is found and addressed.

For some people, medications that treat anxiety and depression may also be able to help with hoarding disorder.

Above all, be empathetic. Try to understand where your older adult is coming from. Listen to what they have to say as you gently guide them towards recovery.

Hoarding in seniors is dangerous

When older adults hang on to a lot more stuff than they need and insist on living in extremely cluttered spaces, they may be hoarders.

If your senior is showing this behavior, you’re probably worried – for good reason!

Hoarding causes physical dangers like increased fall risk, blocking emergency workers from reaching your senior, and unsanitary living conditions. It could also be a sign of a serious condition like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is when someone compulsively buys and saves objects even though they have so many belongings. They’re creating health and safety issues in their home.

Seniors who are hoarders resist your attempts to get rid of anything and often say their possessions are:

  • Useful or needed for future use
  • Unique, irreplaceable, or have great sentimental value
  • Incredible “deals” they couldn’t pass up (even if it’s something they didn’t need or want)

Hoarding health risks and dangers

Hoarding results in serious side effects for older adults, including:

Preventing emergency care – firefighters or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) may not be able to get through the house to reach them

Causing physical danger – increased risk of falls or not being able to move around due to the extreme clutter

Refusing home help – won’t allow anyone into their home (usually due to embarrassment or fear of their stuff being disturbed), this negatively affects their nutrition, hygiene, and medication

Producing unsanitary conditions – spoiled food leads to pests and foodborne illness

Creating fire hazards – piles of old papers, newspapers, or magazines can easily go up in flames

What causes the hoarding behavior?

Right now, the cause of hoarding isn’t clear. 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. Other triggers include living alone for long periods of time without social interaction, lack of cognitive stimulation, or a traumatic event.

Another possibility is something called Diogenes syndrome, which can be brought on by dementia or frontal lobe impairment. Someone with this syndrome shows extreme self-neglect, domestic squalor, social withdrawal, apathy, compulsive hoarding of trash, and lack of shame.

3 tips to help seniors who are hoarders

1. Visit the doctor

Because hoarding is connected to health conditions or mental health issues, it’s likely that your older adult will need professional help. Having their doctor do a full evaluation will help figure out if the behavior is caused by dementia or other medical conditions.

2. Consider therapy

If the issue isn’t related to a medical condition, therapy (sometimes in combination with medication) is a way to help seniors manage their hoarding behavior

3. Encourage them to declutter with kindness and compassion

  • Be patient and compassionate and go slowly
  • Break down the task into clearing small areas or rooms over time rather than trying to tackle everything at once
  • Treat even small steps as a victory. Throwing away one or two items could be a major event for your senior
  • Start by getting rid of a small portion of a larger collection to show your senior that they’re capable of letting go of things.
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  1. As I am a family member and carer to a hoarder, I understand the basics but, I cannot get him to stop. He is 95 years old and has always been the same in my 64 years of knowing him. He has always been a loner, even before he married some 65 years ago. It got worse when he separated from his wife 34 years ago and now, that we have him in a retirement unit, it is getting to be a huge problem. He doesn’t think it is. He thinks he is being a conservationist !! My Sister and I think it stems from his upbringing in the depression and not giving anything up due, to financial constraints (He hoards money as well) and the physical lack of having material possessions at the time. He also does this with the garden side of things as well. Plants things and won’t maintain or clean them up also.
    This is becoming a major problem now as we are finding it harder and harder to remove the rubbish and unused items without him getting very annoyed.
    I will speak to his GP but, that will be another issue. He is still switched on, so will be hard to get him advice he will actually listen to.

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