In an age where we use our stuff to define us, is it any wonder that the very stuff we accumulate turns into an emotional trap we can’t shake off? Despite reports that nobody is saving enough for the future, we insist on buying more and more stuff. And now in our quest to consume we’ve created a whole new kind of disease.
A friend of mine recently told me of a cousin who has magazines climbing all the walls in her small apartment. Another told me her sister keeps all her used tooth floss hanging it from door nobs. Still another just discovered that her lovey has no running water in her home. “You’d never know it just looking at her,” she said, “but her home has been without the basics for quite some time.” Some people are so embarrassed by their hoarding they won’t let anyone into their homes. Repairs go unmade. Firetraps lay in wait for the tiniest spark.
What most people don’t realize is that hoarding is an epidemic among the elderly. From storing plastic shopping bags to saving all their newspapers and magazines, their homes become cluttered making it difficult for them to navigate. Thousands of glass jars, tins and plastic containers perch precariously. With little to do, some turn to shopping, hoarding their acquisitions often still in their original packaging.
There are all kinds of reasons people hoard, from fear of losing something they may need later, to the need to protect their personal information, to trying to fill an emotional hole. If you have a loved one who is a hoarder, don’t turn a blind eye. And don’t think a hasty intervention—backing a dumpster up to the back door—will resolve the underlying issues.
You need to deal with your loved one face-to-face, gently letting her tell you why she keeps everything little thing under the sun. Treat him with dignity. Show that you respect the meaning and attachment she has for her stuff. Stay calm, caring and supportive. Point out the safety issues and be ready to monitor (you’ll need a team for this) as you slowly reorganize and remove the clutter. Expect the changes to be gradual. Ask him or her for ideas on how to reduce the risk. And let them know that you’re going to have to involve others in the situation if you can’t resolve it together. That might include the authorities like public health and doctors.
The legal system is ill equipped to deal with issues like these and many doctors still don’t understand the phenomenon. While obsessive-compulsive disorder is often associated with hoarding, medication doesn’t resolve the issue, so don’t look for an easy drug-related answer. If you truly love Grams or Gramps (and you don’t want their house to burn to the ground in an accidental fire), you’ll gather family and friends to step in and help your lovey come to terms with this issue.