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The Hazard of Hoarding Among Seniors

Why hoarding is a threat to senior health and safety
Photo credit: Nina Hale, Flickr

We all know collectors – those who seem to never have enough stamps, salt shakers, or seashells. Some people start collections because they love the objects they collect, while others amass large collections as an investment, hoping their collection will increase in value. While some collecting may seem a bit eccentric, it’s all innocent enough – right?

But when does collecting become excessive and tip from collecting to hoarding? And even more importantly, when does hoarding become a real health hazard?

Researchers have only recently examined the hoarding condition, which was designated as a distinct form of mental illness by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as recently as 2013. Hoarding is described as a pattern of behavior characterized by excessive acquisition, and an inability or unwillingness to discard any object—thinking they may need it sometime in the future.

Between 2 – 6% of adults suffer from the disorder, and it is more common among older adults. Three times as many adults 55 to 94 years are affected by hoarding disorder compared to adults 34 to 44 years old. It’s a chronic condition that may begin in young adulthood, but left untreated worsens with age.

What drives an individual to hoard?

As with many conditions there may multiple contributing factors — genetic makeup, emotional trauma and changes in the brain may all play a role. As a social worker, I have seen hoarding up close, and in cases I’ve observed, hoarding seems to serve as a kind of “security blanket.” What seems like junk or trash to us is meaningful to a person who hoards and often provides the “glue” that makes them feel safe, especially as they grow older and feel more vulnerable.

What are the associated risks?

As hoarding disorder progresses, it can put strain on family relationships and friendships, and cause an individual to isolate themselves. Hoarders often become unwilling to allow others in their homes even when they may need help with activities of daily living such as showering and cooking. In severe cases, hoarding can cause fires, unsanitary conditions that lead to insect and rodent infestation, and clutter that limits mobility and creates a fall hazard.

How do I know if someone is hoarding?

Raising awareness about hoarding disorder is the first step in being able to recognize when an individual suffers from the disorder, understanding how to react, and providing help. Here are signs from the Mayo Clinic website that indicate someone suffers from hoarding disorder:

  • Disorganized piles or stacks of items, such as newspapers, clothes, paperwork, books or sentimental items
  • Possessions that crowd and clutter hallways, and living spaces
  • Buildup of food or trash to unusually excessive, unsanitary levels
  • Conflict with others who try to reduce or remove clutter
  • Difficulty organizing items, sometimes losing important items in the clutter

What can you do to help if you suspect someone you know is hoarding? 

First of all, don’t pass judgment. There is a reason an individual hoards and understanding the causes underlying the disorder is complicated. The last thing you want to do is make the individual feel even less in control of their lives by taking over and cleaning up without their participation and approval. In the case of family, it is important to seek help from a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible. There are specialized services where the hoarder is an active participant in dismantling the hoarding and discarding objects with professional help. This helps a person who hoards feel in control of the process. There are also clutter groups at local community mental health centers that can help a hoarder who is in treatment keep clutter in check. 

If you suspect an elderly friend or neighbor is hoarding and not safe as a result, check with local or county resources in your area. As hard as it may be, for safety sake, you may need to contact local authorities, such as police, fire, public health, or elder protective services.

Serving on the frontlines as a social worker in Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hospice Care, I often collaborate with the home care team when I believe a patient is struggling with the hoarding disorder to determine if it’s time to bring in public health resources to assess the situation, and recommend what needs to be done to ensure an older patient’s safety.

Helping a person who suffers from hoarding disorder is a challenge and one that takes friends, family, health care professionals and local authorities to work together to find a solution and provide support.

Learn more about Hebrew SeniorLife services. Visit our main website for more on Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care or Hebrew SeniorLife In-home Care

Blog image can be found here.

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I am on the waiting list and am interested in keeping up to date
I have had trouble keeping organized & seem to have too much of everything, but I don't tho k I'm a hoarder!
Thanks for sharing
Thank you for this article. It was most helpful. I have a friend who is otherwise is a brilliant and highly esteemed person, but who fits the criteria for this disorder. I have been in the mode of insulting by insinuation, prodding and more than a few times absolutely invading his space in an attempt to put chaos and disorder into a system to achieve a routine of orderliness which includes tossing things out. I shall cease doing that and will hope for better ways to maintain this affliction - if possible.

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