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Understanding Hoarding Disorder in Older Adults

Some older adults love collecting keepsakes and have a hard time letting go of old items. A small amount of clutter or an excess of belongings isn’t necessarily something to worry about. When you’ve lived a long and full life, it’s natural to want to hold onto the possessions that help you reflect and reminisce. However, if you’re keeping every item that comes your way because the thought of discarding them is too emotionally painful, there might be a mental health issue at play. Hoarding behavior affects people of all ages, but it’s most common among older adults. Not only is hoarding a sign of a mental or emotional health issue, but it can also create physical hazards in the environment. Treating the hoarding behavior is essential for keeping the home safe and for improving your mental health.

What Is Hoarding Disorder?

Hoarding disorder is considered to be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s characterized by an overwhelming need to save items and feelings of intense distress when you try to discard them. Hoarding goes beyond simply having messy tendencies or having a cluttered home. The disorder can completely take over your life, cause major psychological pain, and interfere with your physical health, your relationships, and your overall functioning.

Signs and Symptoms of Hoarding

Some people who struggle with hoarding have a great deal of self-awareness about the disorder. They recognize that something is wrong, but they feel powerless to stop it. Others may be in a state of denial about the severity of the issue. Knowing the signs of the disorder can help you identify it in yourself or a loved one.
The following are some of the most common signs and symptoms of hoarding behavior:

  • Acquiring an excessive amount of belongings
  • Emotional distress when trying to throw items away
  • Lashing out at others when they try to throw something away
  • A desperate need to save items regardless of their value
  • Clutter that takes up an extreme amount of space in the home
  • Saving items in case they’ll be needed in the future
  • Feeling safe or secure when saving things


How Aging Affects Hoarding Behavior

Hoarding behavior can start or worsen in older adulthood. Individuals who have always had hoarding tendencies may see the behaviors become extreme as they age, and those who have never struggled with hoarding may see an onset of symptoms.
Aging can be an emotionally complicated process, and hoarding is sometimes a coping mechanism. You might cling to items that remind you of your younger years. Some seniors collect an excessive amount of belongings because it gives them a sense of control, which can help to alleviate anxiety. If you have senior hoarding syndrome, your possessions may provide an overall sense of relief and comfort, which can be very appealing as you navigate the physical and psychological effects of aging.
Social isolation is another major factor in the increase in hoarding behavior among older adults. Seniors sometimes feel removed from the outside world, especially if they don’t have close family or a strong social network nearby. Your collection of items may help you feel connected to something, which can greatly alleviate the feelings of loneliness.

Risks of Hoarding for Older Adults

Hoarding is often a coping mechanism for older adults, but it doesn’t provide the true relief needed to improve your mental health. Although hoarding may provide a sense of control or a feeling of purpose, the mental and physical risks of the behavior outweigh the perceived benefits.
Hoarding can create serious health risks for people of all ages. When your house is completely full of clutter, keeping the space clean is nearly impossible. Even if you take great care to organize your belongings, your home may experience a dangerous buildup of dust, dirt, or mold. Older adults may have a particularly hard time keeping their home clean due to a decline in mobility, and hoarding only makes this situation worse. This is especially true if you struggle to throw away food or garbage.
The risks of tripping and falling are significantly higher among people with hoarding issues, too. Although no two people experience exactly the same hoarding behaviors, many people with the disorder will build up piles of clutter throughout the home, keeping only narrow walkways for navigation. This creates a serious safety risk for any senior who struggles with balance or coordination. As a result, you might avoid moving around to reduce your risk of falling. This lack of movement can lead to a serious decline in your overall physical health, though.

Treating Hoarding Behavior in Seniors

Empathy is absolutely essential when treating senior hoarding syndrome. Hoarding is often misunderstood or judged, but criticizing someone for their behavior will only cause them to further isolate themselves. If you struggle with hoarding, try to be compassionate and patient with yourself. If your loved one has the disorder, try not to judge them even if you don’t understand why they do what they do.
Managing the immediate safety risks as quickly as possible is critical for seniors with a hoarding problem. Although you probably won’t be able to get rid of the clutter right away, you could try to clear wider walkways or clean up visible dust and dirt. If you’re extremely concerned about your loved one’s safety, temporarily removing them from the home may be necessary.
Setting small goals is also helpful. No one can overcome a hoarding problem overnight. A decision that may seem small to you, such as throwing away an old magazine, could be a major victory for someone with hoarding behaviors. Patience is key as your loved one gradually overcomes the behavior and makes small changes to improve their living space.
In many cases, counseling for seniors is necessary for addressing the underlying emotional concerns that have caused the hoarding. Older adults don’t hoard items simply because they like having a lot of belongings. The psychological roots of the issue can be incredibly complex, and overcoming these emotions is the best way to successfully treat senior hoarding syndrome.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy for older adults struggling with hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and other issues. You can reach out to us today to connect with a licensed counselor in your area.

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