Pile of boxes junk inside a residential garage.

Most of us are probably familiar with various TV reality shows about hoarding. Their popularity likely stems from viewers enjoying transformations that drastically improve people’s lives. On these shows, hoarding is treated as a simple Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that can be fixed with an intervention and a removal of unnecessary items. Unfortunately, the reality of hoarding is a bit more complicated.

Hoarding is almost always accompanied by increased levels of anxiety and often develops as an offshoot of such diseases as dementia or other mental disorders. Of course, some people who like to hang on to things share none of the mental characteristics of hoarders. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of a hoarder include:

  • The excessive acquiring of items for which the person has no room to store and which are completely unneeded
  • An ongoing difficulty with parting with items, even those that are no longer used or have no value
  • The accumulation of clutter to the point where rooms in the home are no longer habitable.

Hoarding can be dangerous for many reasons. The home may be so full of possessions that the person is unable to reach the bedroom, kitchen or bathroom. The home becomes dangerous and unsanitary, and the person may be unable to bathe, perform other personal care tasks, or prepare nutritious meals. Additionally, a crowded home makes it more difficult for emergency responders to reach the person in time. Extreme hoarding may also lead to eviction and homelessness.

Treatment for this condition can be challenging. First, it’s important to see a mental health professional who may identify the underlying causes for hoarding. Once these underlying causes have been addressed, social service agencies may step in; many communities today have interagency “hoarding task forces.” Organization coaches and specialized cleaning services can assist in dealing with extremely cluttered home conditions.

Though it may seem like an uphill battle where removing one item causes two more to appear in its place, the final rewards can be great. People who successfully gain the upper hand over their proliferating possessions are not only much safer in their homes, but also feel a greater sense of control over their lives.

Making the home safer

We recently discussed how to make a home safer for seniors. Getting rid of clutter is a major step in making the home safer for everyone. For other ways to make your home safer, the Consumer Product Safety Commission offers a free, online Home Safety Checklist.

Downsizing When Making a Move

If you have a loved who is more of a pack rat than a hoarder, they can still need help when moving to a smaller home or apartment or a senior living community. Here are suggestions from eldercare experts:

Plan ahead. Get a good idea of the space limitations of your new home. What furniture and personal belongings will be a good fit? Disposing of items ahead of the move can help you avoid running up a bill at a public storage company. On the other hand, rashly discarding items that have sentimental value to family can lead to pain and regret.

Determine which items are true heirlooms. Most of us have a corner of our attic or closet where we keep the special things in our lives—photo albums, old home movies, souvenirs of travel and family events, antiques that have been in the family for generations. Decide which of these things have true meaning, and which mementoes can be replaced by memories.

Keep it in the family. Your children, grandchildren and other relatives may love to have and safeguard treasured items for which you no longer have room. Invite loved ones over to make some selections. This can also be a wonderful opportunity to share memories associated with heirlooms.