When I walked into the house it was very clear that she was a hoarder. There was a path from the front door made of walls of stacked newspapers on each side. It’s split in the middle of the living room with one canyon going towards the bedroom and one going towards the kitchen. In the kitchen, there was about one square foot of open counter space. As I looked in the fridge, there was food probably from the Reagan administration lurking in the back. The entire house smelled moldy. As a geriatric care manager, I knew I had a mess ahead, and that front door is too small for a backhoe.
The patient herself was in her bedroom. She apologized profusely for the mess; “I tried to tidy up a little” she said with a weak smile. In my head I thought, how did she get to this state?
Hoarding is a psychological problem associated with uncontrolled anxiety and other mental issues. It is estimated that between 2 to 5% of the United States population has some degree of hoarding disorder and it tends to get worse as people age. In a recent study, hoarders tended to be white (85%) women (69%), most were unmarried and lived alone.
Individuals with hoarding disorders will often collect large amounts of useless or unnecessary items to the point that they will lose the use of entire rooms to storage. Items ranging from newspapers and magazines to empty butter tubs.
As a geriatric care manager, I have seen that hoarding is not constrained to objects. The obsessive-compulsive aspect of hoarding may lead individuals to collect stray animals that they cannot care for.
The risks of hoarding.
Shame and isolation
People with HD or hoarding disorder, will often feel embarrassment over the conditions of their homes and living arrangements. Because of that, they attempt to hide it by keeping people away. This can lead to social isolation and depression. The “crazy old cat lady” is a different type of HD.
- Individuals with HD are more likely to eat food or beverages that have become contaminated or outdated because of their reluctance to throw things away.
- They are at increased risk of problems associated with mold the house.
- Older adults with HD have medical conditions that generally are less controlled and more serious and they’re less likely to seek help.
- They are at increased risks for falling due to tripping hazards.
- They are at higher risk for home fires, and more likely to be seriously injured or killed. (Link to fire safety article)
- They’re less motivated to move, when needed, to a higher level of care or closer to family due to the anxiety of losing their “things.”
What to do?
If you have a loved one who suffers from HD, consider using a multi-faceted approach that includes a medical social worker, and a geriatric care manager as well as family and trusted friends. Hoarding can be a serious health and safety risk because it is usually accompanied with self-neglect.
There are many resources available as well:
Washington State resources: https://www.dshs.wa.gov/altsa/home-and-community-services/self-neglect
Services that specialize in helping hoarders clean up: http://hoardingcleanup.com/hoarding_help_home
These people need help and often they are too burdened and ashamed to ask for help. It takes a gentle and understanding approach to help them turn loose of the stuff, but it’s worth it.