(as seen in the Courier-Life, Oct 1-Oct 5, 2012)
Seniors might tend towards hoarding for several reasons, including social isolation, memory problems, physical disabilities. Hoarding is even a greater concern in congested areas like New York City where many seniors live in small apartments in highly populated areas.
We have all heard about or seen the TV programs — “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive”. In every show, cleaning crews are called in to excavate the residents from homes stacked from floor to ceiling with piles of papers, stacks of unwashed dishes, mountains of trash, and more. Most of us watch these shows with our faces scrunched up and say “Ewww”! But, studies show that hoarding is a growing problem that is not confined to people of any certain age group, income level or upbringing. Sometimes, circumstance can cause people to become hoarders and many seniors fall victim to this behavior. Hoarding is even a greater concern in congested areas like New York City and its boroughs where many seniors live in small apartments in highly populated areas. When their homes become so packed with “stuff” and infested with rodents or insects, it then becomes a serious health and fire hazard not only to them, but to others who live in close proximity to them.
Here are some reasons why seniors are prone to hoarding:
Collecting memories: As we age, we gather years of memories and for many people this includes collecting items associated with these memories. These treasures include such things as family heirlooms, collections of family photos, souvenirs from trips, childhood items, children’s belongings, books, magazines or newspapers put aside to read or reread later. This might not be a problem if you have enough room to store it, but when items overwhelm a space, it can become impossible for a senior with failing eyesight, slowed reflexes or unsteady gait to get around. The home becomes an obstacle course with falls and injuries waiting to happen.
Mental handicaps: People in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or other cognitive impairment might unwittingly begin to hoard. As their memory fails, they have trouble making minor decisions, such as deciding what mail is important and what is not. This is an overwhelming thought to them, so they tend to put all their mail aside so they can go through it later. It doesn’t take long for this to pile up.
My family became aware of my mother’s memory decline related to Alzheimer’s disease when my husband, son and I drove down to their home in New Jersey to visit. We found boxes of halvah stacked in the refrigerator, on the counters and stored in cabinets. My father has a weakness for halvah, so apparently Mom would buy it whenever she passed a candy counter. She had no idea there was already a lifetime supply at home because she couldn’t remember!
Physical handicaps: Physical handicaps can be another cause of hoarding. An older person suffering from painful arthritis might find simple household tasks like cleaning the table, washing dishes or hanging up clothes too difficult to handle. Or a person with poor eyesight might be too proud to ask a neighbor to come in and help him remove the trash. Instead the trash may pile up becoming a magnet for rodents and insects. This can be a problem for both the resident and his neighbors.
Social Isolation: Social isolation can also contribute to hoarding especially in the elderly. As people age, they often lose the ability to perform many activities. Sometimes just maneuvering around the home becomes quite a chore and going outside the home can be so difficult that it just becomes easier to stay home rather than visit senior centers or attend outside events. It’s easy for these folks to become reclusive, depressed and uncaring about how their apartment looks. Since nobody is there to see it, they are less inclined to clean or throw things away. Studies have also shown that people who are isolated tend to become more attached to possessions. Many seniors who stay at home begin to bond with items around them and are unable to part with them. This could cause them to keep things that they might normally throw away, or to pick up items that might offer them solace.
Downsizing: My friend, Liz once confided in me; “I would probably be considered a hoarder if my apartment were smaller.” With unlimited space, we rarely have to make decisions on what to keep and what to throw out, but when one needs to move into a smaller space, making choices on what is necessary and what can be given away can be very difficult. There is now a growing industry of consultants whose sole job is to help people part with their items so their new home will not become booby trapped with too many possessions.
Hoarding by seniors is becoming a growing concern in the five boroughs particularly for apartment dwellers where it impacts more than one family. Next month I will discuss some of the programs that agencies are considering to help seniors handle this problem.
Joanna Leefer is an Eldercare Advisor with 10 years experience working with aging issues. She was the primary caregiver for her parents for over seven years and worked for FRIA, Inc. (Friends and Relatives of Institutionalized Aged) an advocacy organization for the elderly. For more information on her services, log onto www.joannaleefer.com. Her book Eldercare Basics: A How-to Guide for the Family will be available Spring, 2013.