It can be hard to convince any elderly parent that an aged care facility is the best option for their health and safety – let alone a parent with a hoarding disorder.

After all, over 60% of older Australians strongly prefer to age in their own home. It’s comfortable, it has all their belongings, and it’s likely packed with sentimental value.

It’s easy to imagine how much this desire is amplified for an elderly parent who also happens to be a hoarder.

To learn more about elderly hoarding, we spoke to two hoarding disorder experts:

  • Angela Esnouf, Certified Professional Organiser in Chronic Disorganisation from Hoarding Home Solutions
  • And Veronica Kennedy, Professional Organiser with experience in hoarding disorder from A Hand to Help.

They shared some helpful insights into the implications of elderly hoarding and how you might support your parent with a hoarding disorder.

 

Recap: What is hoarding disorder?

Mess Ball

Compulsive hoarding disorder is a psychological disorder categorised by extreme saving and collecting behaviour. It leads to cluttered living spaces and causes distress or issues in daily activities.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria for hoarding disorder include:

  • Difficulty discarding items regardless of their actual value
  • A perceived need to save the items and associated distress at the idea of losing them
  • Clutter that prevents the home being used for its intended purpose.

Research shows clinically significant hoarding currently affects between 2% and 6% of the population.

hoarding disorder statistic

 

Can hoarding disorder develop in later life?

Elderly couple

A study has found the symptoms of hoarding disorder increase in severity over time. The same study shows around 25% of older adults with Hoarding Disorder reported a possible onset after the age of 40.

So while hoarding disorder is generally prevalent in early life, it’s a progressive and chronic condition that often becomes more problematic in older age. It may also be that the disorder isn’t known to the family of the hoarder until later in life.

Veronica shares from her personal experience working with people with Hoarding Disorder: “Accumulation occurs over many years, but the hoarded home might be discovered if the person is assessed for in-home help due to an accident or ill health, or the person who maintained the home has died (e.g. the spouse) and the hoard has spiralled out of control. It may look like hoarding disorder has come on in later years, but this is not the case.”

Angela agrees: “It may start in younger years but not become apparent until the volume of saved items grows and/or the person becomes unable to manage their possessions. Likewise, it may be triggered by a traumatic event.”

Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder

 

What might trigger Hoarding Disorder in later life?

Silhouette of sad man

According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s not conclusive what causes hoarding disorder, but genetics, brain functioning, and stressful life events are being studied as potential causes.

Angela explains that trauma is often associated with hoarding. She says, “Any traumatic event, like the loss of a loved one, break down of a relationship, empty nest, loss of purpose due to retirement, or simply loss of independence through illness or ageing, may trigger hoarding behaviours.”

You can learn more about the psychology behind hoarding disorder in this informative article

 

Signs of Elderly Hoarding

Grandma reading to Grandchild

Warning signs that your elderly parent is a hoarder might include:

  • Excessively acquiring items that aren’t needed or for which there’s no room
  • Difficulty throwing out or parting with things, regardless of value
  • Feeling a need to save items and being upset at the thought of disposing of them
  • Building up of clutter to the extent rooms become unusable.

According to Angela, another sign could be if your parent is making excuses for you to not visit their home.

She explains, “It may be an indication they are not coping, or they are embarrassed about the condition of the home.”

If your parent seems uncomfortable about you seeing their home or is coming up with reasons why you shouldn’t, this may be a sign they’re trying to hide their hoarding behaviours.

Learn about the signs and symptoms of hoarding in more detail in our article 5 Signs Of Hoarding Disorder (And How To Spot Them).

 

How is elderly hoarding different to senile squalor syndrome?

Brain concept

Diogenes syndrome (or senile squalor syndrome) and compulsive hoarding disorder in the elderly may have a couple of overlapping signs and symptoms, but they’re recognised as different and separate psychological disorders.

Senile squalor syndrome is categorised by:

  • Extreme self-neglect
  • Domestic squalor
  • Withdrawal from society
  • Apathy
  • Lack of shame
  • Some compulsive hoarding.

Hoarding disorder, on the other hand, is not categorised by these symptoms of squalor.

Veronica notes, “I’ve worked in hoarded homes where squalor doesn’t exist and personal self-care looks normal.”

Senile squalor syndrome can exist without hoarding behaviours, as hoarding disorder can exist without signs of squalor and self-neglect.

 

Implications of Elderly Hoarding

Woman in despair

Hoarding disorder can have a negative impact on anyone’s health and safety. These risks can understandably increase for the frail-aged.

Some potential dangers of hoarding disorder include:

  • Increased risk of trips and falls
  • Inappropriate storage of medication
  • Belongings may be a fire risk if blocking exits
  • Risk of piled-up belongings falling onto someone
  • Makes it difficult to clean home, which can lead to unhygienic conditions and insects/rodents.

Beyond the physical risks, Angela recalls an example of the financial burden hoarding disorder can have on a person.

“One man would buy a 6-pack of hearing aid batteries at $3 per pack. He would open the pack, insert the new battery, and lay the open pack down. The open pack would quickly be absorbed into the mounds of clutter, so a new 6-pack would be purchased for next time,” Angela says. “When it came time to declutter for health and safety reasons, a crate was filled with new hearing aid batteries to the value of at least $1,250.”

 

How to Support an Elderly Parent Who Is a Hoarder

Man helping woman

Having a loved one with Hoarding Disorder can bring a whirlwind of emotions from concern and confusion to frustration and heartbreak.

Sane Australia offers these tips for helping someone who hoards:

  • Focus on the person, not the clutter – Hoarding disorder is a psychological disorder, and simply discarding the ‘stuff’ isn’t going to address the underlying issue or prevent hoarding behaviours from continuing.
  • Be there – People with hoarding disorders can feel isolated and embarrassed. Be there for your parent and let them know you love them as a person separate to their disorder.
  • Set realistic goals and celebrate little wins – Every small step counts, so work together with your parent in setting small goals to start the decluttering process, such as discarding just one item per week.
  • Allow them to feel in control – Taking over the decluttering process is never going to end well. Respect that you’re in their space and be supportive without being pushy.
  • Encourage helpseeking – Hoarding disorder can bring feelings of shame, preventing your parent from reaching out. Encourage them to visit their GP for professional support in their journey.

Angela and Veronica both recommend seeking support from medical professionals.

“Help your elderly parent to seek appropriate help from a medical professional,” Angela says.

“There may be several reasons for clutter to accumulate. For instance, failing eyesight, lack of mobility, and depression can lead to a build-up of clutter and even squalor. As an adult child, it’s important to leave diagnosis to the experts.”

Veronica agrees you should encourage support from a professional such as a psychologist when dealing with a parent who is a hoarder.

You can find more helpful information in our article What To Do If Your Loved One Is A Hoarder.

 

Moving into an Aged Care Facility

Pushing wheelchair

Perhaps your ageing parent has lost some of their mobility, or maybe their memory isn’t what it used to be. Deciding your parent requires full-time care in a home is hard enough without the added obstacle of hoarding disorder.

But how can you help them understand moving into a facility is the best choice for their health and safety when they have such a strong attachment to the belongings in their own home?

Veronica explains, “This is a complex area to navigate. The reason for the move needs to be carefully examined. Something to consider: a person with hoarding disorder might well hoard within the aged care facility.”

Angela suggests that helping them move their favourite things into their new residence may offer some comfort.

“Someone with hoarding disorder will find it difficult to leave the comfort of their home and their possessions. It’s common for them to feel at ease with a sense of abundance,” she says. “The ‘minimal’ look will cause them distress. Within reason, and where possible, help an elderly parent to bring with them their favourite things, to provide that necessary sense of abundance and familiarity.”

She also recommends taking the time to allow your parent to say goodbye to their items in their own time.

“Letting go of past possessions can be a celebration of their life, rather than a punitive process,” she explains. “One way to do this is to use a treasure-hunting technique. Have patience and allow time for the inevitable stories and memories to be shared as things are sorted and let go.”

Supporting a parent with hoarding disorder can be a long and winding journey. If you’re not sure where to start, you can find more helpful resources on the Hoarding Home Solutions website.

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