Carolyn Rosenblatt, Contributor
May 10, 2021
Clutter is one thing. Lots of us have unneeded items in our homes. Books abound on how to de-clutter but these do not seem to apply to aging parents. It bothers the adult children when they see it and say something but the elders do not seem to want to change the situation. Or perhaps they believe they can’t change it. I refer in this discussion to elders specifically though the problem can occur at any age.
It is a matter of degree when clutter gets to the level we call “hoarding.” As a public health nurse in my first career, I personally witnessed clutter/hoarding in the occasional home where I visited to do my job. In one home, dirty pots and dishes filled the sink and above, several feet high. Piles of debris covered the kitchen counters. Piles of items were stacked around the house but you could still walk in and see the client in a bedroom. In extreme cases, not perhaps to the extent of a TV reality show, but extreme nonetheless, I saw elders with newspapers in stacks from floor to ceiling everywhere, even on the bed. Stacks left a corridor to get to and from the front door. A narrow pathway between stacks led to the bathroom and kitchen. And the client had no intention of throwing any of the paper out. He told me this while smoking a cigarette! Other hoarding took similar forms in other apartments with varying objects: towering stacks of books, clothing, boxes, bric a brac, piled everywhere. How do things get like that and why won’t the elder clean stuff out?
If clutter and hoarding are on a continuum, they have some features in common. First, there may be a long standing habit of not throwing things out because of fear that one might need it someday. Next, the elder forms a deep emotional attachment to the objects being hoarded. This can include pets too, when keeping too many and being out of control is the manifestation of collecting endlessly. Parting with something to which one is deeply and strongly attached is very difficult and emotional for the elder.
For people over 50, research has demonstrated that the odds are not good of eliminating the hoarding. The family, or a crew of helpers can clear the clutter and debris, only to find that the aging parents starts right up again after everything is cleaned up. If your aging loved one has a clutter issue and it seems to be getting worse, consider what you can and can’t do.
- You can’t talk an aging parent out of being attached to objects (or too many pets) by logical means. You can start small and offer to help with the arduous decision of what to give up and get rid of. Acknowledge that it is very difficult for him or her. Once you get any cooperation, move fast. Take a few things and get them out of the home immediately before the aging parent changes her mind.
- Accept that the excess clutter issue will not be solved by just doing a good cleaning and trashing the trash. It is an emotional and mental health issue that is likely to persist. Keep up steady offers to remove things to which the intense attachment is somewhat less than for other objects and increase your efforts gradually.
- Notice when the problem arose and became worse. A loss of a loved one, depression, and feeling out of control are often factors in excess clutter. Emotional support, frequent social contact and healthcare monitoring may help reduce the anxiety that goes along with removing things to which there is intense emotional attachment.
- If your aging parent does have a disorder that can be called hoarding, and it gets extreme to the point of endangering their health and safety, taking legal steps to get control over your aging parent may be needed. Guardianship can be a remedy but involving the courts can be traumatic. One must weigh the risks of allowing it to continue against the cost and distress of taking control away from the aging parent.
The takeaway is this: if clutter is not endangering your aging parents’ health and safety, you may not be able to fix the situation. It is an emotional and mental health issue. It may be distressing to see it and frustrating that it persists, but it may not actually be dangerous. On the other hand, if there are rodents, far too many out of control pets, rotting food, plumbing, heating and other basic needs interfered with by the collections of objects in the home, it is time to seek legal advice. I see guardianship as an absolute last resort, but it is a legal choice you can make to save your aging loved one from real harm.
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