Hoarding Part 1: How Did We Get Here?

By Betsy Smith, Network Partner Manager at Elder Law of Michigan

The cause of hoarding is not clear, but what we do know is that it is becoming more of a commonly discussed topic and is an emerging issue with the aging population. In fact, in 2013, hoarding was classified as a mental illness. According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding is “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” The biggest question about hoarding seems to be, “How did we get here?” In the first of two blogs about hoarding, we will explore the causes and risks of hoarding, as well as how to recognize potential hoarding behaviors.

Though hoarding may begin as early as childhood, several causes make older adults more susceptible to becoming a hoarder. Biological reasons such as dementia, cognitive disorders, and OCD may be just the start of what can spark hoarding tendencies. Other triggers of senior hoarding may include depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Even a traumatic event, lack of cognitive stimulation, and long periods without social interaction can prompt hoarding. There are plenty of other reasons people hoard.

  • Sentimental attachment – many items may hold precious memories to the hoarder.
  • Health restrictions – at this stage in their life, it’s not uncommon for seniors to have limited mobility which restricts them from taking care of household duties.
  • Fear of letting go – the big question most hoarders live with is, “What if I need it?”
  • Loneliness and depression – many seniors spend much of their time alone and inadvertently use their clutter as a misplaced companion.
  • Love of shopping – today’s seniors have more money than previous generations of older adults, and may love to shop.

Now let’s look at the risks of hoarding. The most obvious dangers are physical threats. Extreme clutter hinders the ability to move safely throughout the home and may cause fires and structural hazards. The clutter itself may contain bio-hazardous materials that cause infectious disease and unsanitary conditions. Hoarders have also been trapped and injured under piles of collected items. These stockpiled objects can block entrances to the home, which may prevent emergency care workers (firefighters or EMTs) from entering the home. Living conditions in the home can deteriorate quickly and become a hazard for anyone who goes into the home.

Other dangers of hoarding are financial difficulties. Hoarders tend to spend too much money on the items they acquire and often spend money replacing items due to losing them in the clutter. Sometimes hoarders are even cited for property neglect and receive fines from the city.

Social withdrawal is another risk of becoming a hoarder. Hoarders tend to hide clutter from the outside world due to shame and embarrassment, which can cause alienation from friends and family. They are afraid of being judged, or worse yet, being forced to throw things away. Often, the hoarder chooses to avoid social interactions altogether.

Finally, hoarding can have a troubling impact on the mental and emotional state of the hoarder. It comes as no surprise that hoarding can be accompanied by severe depression, anxiety, and stress. Believe it or not, clutter can be extremely stressful to the hoarder. The physical aspect of a messy house, as well as not being able to find things can also be a constant trigger of worry. Mental and emotional stress can manifest itself into physical ailments, including muscle spasms and migraines, which can lead to panic attacks. If these symptoms are not treated, they could lead to even more serious mental (and physical) health issues.

If you have a senior citizen in your life and are concerned about their collecting, there are things you can look for that might suggest a hoarding tendency. Here’s how to spot that clutter creep.

  • Frustration with organizing
  • Expired food in the refrigerator
  • Compulsive shopping
  • Jam-packed closets and drawers
  • Indecision about throwing things away
  • Loneliness
  • Health episodes, such as a stroke
  • Piles of mail

Hoarders are emotionally attached to their belongings and do not have the ability to set priorities and make informed decisions. Therefore, they can compromise their safety and relationships just because they are afraid to throw anything away. When the well-being of the affected individual is in danger, hoarding help becomes necessary. If you suspect a loved is a hoarder, chances are that they will not seek help on their own. Stay tuned for the second blog on hoarding which will address how to help a hoarder and where to find resources to help.

Check out Hoarding Part 2: The Do’s and Don’t of Decluttering for information about how to help a hoarder and where to find resources.

Betsy is the MiCAFE Network Shareholder and Partner Manager at Elder Law of Michigan. She has been a member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since September 2019. As the MiCAFE Network Partner Manager at Elder Law of Michigan, Betsy provides outreach, training, recruitment, and education to MiCAFE Network Partners and stakeholders.

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