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There Is Help For Hoarders But No Cure

The popularity of reality TV shows has brought about an overwhelming interest in the disorder of hoarding. I delivered a presentation on the subject this week and was overwhelmed myself by the number of people in the audience who thought they had the disorder themselves. As a senior living advisor and certified care manager who works closely with hoarders, here is a summary of what I shared with my audience.

Hoarding is a disorder that is comprised of three components. First, a person accumulates too many possessions. Second, the person fails to get rid of them. Third, the individual fails to organize the “stuff.” The bottom line is that living spaces that are intended for other uses are so cluttered that they can’t be used for the purpose for which they were designed. The result is that the hoarder suffers distress due to the hoarding.

Here are some of the signs of a chronic hoarder:

The hoarder develops an inability to part with possessions.
The person misplaces money or bills in the “stuff.”
The individual feels like the possessions have taken over the home or workplace, and they cannot do anything about it.
The person accumulates free items like flyers or hard candy.
Hoarders will stocking up or buy items because s/he are perceives them as as a bargain.
The hoarder won’t let family, friends, or repairmen into their living space because they are embarrassed of the mess.

Why do people hoard? Some of the reasons include not wanting to “waste” anything.* The fear of losing information is another reason. Hence, some people will hoard newspapers. Some people develop emotional attachments to objects. S/he thinks that if the item is discarded something bad will happen. Some hoarders will accumulate items because they like the way they look or feel.

Hoarding is usually associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In the elderly, it is also associated with Diogenes Syndrome. Diogenes Syndrome refers to a person who neglects themselves and hoards garbage. It affects .5 per 1,000 people aged 60 and over. The person normally lives alone. About 50% to 65% have another psychiatric disorder like dementia, depression, or OCD just to name a few. Some hoarders are diagnosed in their teens, while others begin to exhibit symptoms that increase in late life.

How do you treat the disorder? Driving up with a dump truck and clearing out a hoarder’s living space does not work. A hoarder will usually reject the help. You could spend thousands of dollars having someone clean the place just to have the problem return. What seems to be working for hoarders in general is the combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and anti-depressants. Some of the CBT sessions take place on line with a facilitator. Other groups will actually have the participants meet at each other’s homes to discuss what is at the root of their thinking processes about hoarding and how to change their behaviors. Then, they will engage and practice some of the decluttering activities in each other’s homes. Anti-depressants such as Prozac or Celexa aren’t prescriptions that are dispensed for hoarding. They may help but do not cure the disorder. Unfortunately, many seniors aren’t computer literate or complain the CBT is too abstract. Other resources that may helpful are hoarding task forces offered through the area agencies on aging, professional organizers and one on one therapy sessions with a mental health professional.. Although there is no cure for hoarding, there are hoarders who with the right help can change their lives and live to the fullest.

Real Life Story My client was a man in his late 70’s who was introduced to me by his power of Attorney For Health Care and Property. He was in his late 70s had lost his spouse about 2 years ago. Prior to the wife’s death, he had been very social, was employed as an Accountant, and played the organ in church for over 20 years. He was living alone, frail, and appeared to be in very poor health. The house was laden with garbage, and hundreds of newspapers. When I met him the first time, he was covered in her own excrement. He had an outbreak on his skin due to the lack regular bathing. My contact called me on an emergency intervention basis which resulted in my client being admitted to the behavioral psychiatric unit at one of the local hospitals. His medications were adjusted and his condition improved.

After several weeks in the hospital, I was faced with the challenge of finding alternative housing for him, as the professionals reported that it wasn’t a good idea for him to return home alone. I had my doubts about his placement due to the psychiatric hospital stay. The first assisted living community I approached declined him due to the diagnosis. The second community agreed to take him in the assisted living area if I agreed to put the appropriate support systems in place.
After my client moved, I arranged to have a clinical psychologist work with him on recognizing his behaviors and the beliefs that caused the hoarding. The housekeepers watch his habits. Although he is allowed to read the newspapers, at the end of the week he is allowed to keep one and discard the rest. He is doing so well, and we are contemplating a move to independent living!

For all of your senior living needs, please contact Andrea Donovan Senior Living Advisors.