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Halting Hoarding: How to Help

senior woman surrounded by hoarding mess

By: Camila Cal, SeniorLivingGuide.com

For most people, the action of hoarding has come into prevalence through media. Specifically, through a reality television show that sensationalizes hoarding, leading people to believe that what they see on the screen are rare, extreme cases of hoarding and could not be occurring with their own loved ones.

Ann Meyerson, a real estate professional that specializes in working with seniors that have hoarder homes and holds a PhD in educational leadership, as well as being a trained counselor, disagrees. Meyerson explains that what we see on television is inaccurate and toxic to our perception of hoarding. She joined SeniorLivingGuide.com Podcast to set the record straight and provide advice on how to recognize and treat hoarding.

Hoarding, by definition, is the action of amassing objects and storing them. But to Meyerson, the true definition of hoarding is when it impairs everyday living and quality of life. To her, there is a fine line between being an extensive collector and a hoarder. She explained that there are several different types of hoarding, including:

  1. Random hoarding: The property may be in total disorder; there is no actual purpose to the hoarding. Example: empty bottles, dishes, other random objects.
  2. Specific hoarding: Some rooms in the house may be neat and orderly, while other ones are filled to the top with possessions.
  3. Animal hoarding: Possession of several animals, often too many to care for properly.
  4. Cyber hoarding: Some may be very invested in their computers and store an excess of information. Example: keeping thousands of emails and files.
  5. Financial hoarding: Having an excess of credit cards or obsessively collecting points for reward programs that will never be used, etc.

These are just some of the many examples that Meyerson has encountered. Data estimates that the hoarding SeniorLivingGuide.com Podcast Bannerpopulation is between 2-6% of people but based on her experience, she believes it is far more and often unreported. Seniors especially are prone to develop these habits because it can be a manifestation of dementia. In many cases, hoarders are collecting and keeping objects because it is a way that they can maintain control over their life.

The good news is that there are signs that you can look out for:

  • Check on the senior’s mental health. If someone is suffering from hoarding, there are almost always other psychological factors going on such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, etc. Hoarding is just an example of the psychological factors going on.
  • Monitor physical health. Many hoarders have problems with their weight and obesity because of hoarding food and overeating.
  • Keep a close eye on the senior’s personal life. Major life events can be a trigger for the hoarding to begin. For example, a death of someone close to the senior or any other drastic lifestyle changes.

Along with the monitoring for signs, there are ways to help the senior transition to a life free of hoarding. Meyerson emphasized that it’s important to never make the hoarder feel embarrassed or ashamed because hoarding should be treated as a mental illness. She outlined some steps we can take to help our loved ones that may be suffering from hoarding.

  • Do not assume that cleaning out or throwing away the objects will solve the problem. It almost certainly will not help the individual. The psychological issues are deeper than just stuff and require discussion and evaluation. If the home is cleaned out, the hoarder will likely begin to hoard again, perhaps more so, due to their sense of loss.
  • Research obtaining a team of counselors who can help with a psychological evaluation and intervention. Addressing the hoarding needs to be a team approach because the more people that are willing to support the senior, the less they will feel isolated in their illness. One person should be assigned as a team leader, but the transition will require unwavering support from family, friends, and loved ones.
  • There are realtors that specialize in senior real estate who can help with making referrals to specialists with hoarding training or are simply sympathetic to the situation. The most important thing is to find people that care and truly want to help the senior.
  • If you are transitioning the senior to a new location and cleaning out their home, take many photographs of their belongings and create a memory book. This will help them feel like their things are not lost and will always be with them.
  • If you are transitioning the senior to an assisted living facility, pay close attention. Have a meal at the community and look around. How does the staff treat the residents? Often, seniors struggle with this transition because they are faced with the reality that it might be their last move. Having compassionate, caring caretakers can make a huge difference for all seniors, but especially for seniors that suffer from hoarding.
  • Unfortunately, sometimes the only alternative decision of contacting adult protective services must be made if the senior is in harm or may be harming themselves. Remember that the top priority is to transition the senior into safety.

Above all, Meyerson emphasized that kindness matters in these tough situations. It is important to remain nonjudgmental and considerate, just as you would for someone that is visibly disabled. Hoarders aren’t stars in a television show, they are real humans battling a difficult mental illness and require love, compassion, and understanding in order to transition them to a happy, healthy environment.

If you know of any seniors that are suffering with hoarding, Meyerson can refer you to specialists willing to help.

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