Hoarding Behavior in Older Adults

Hoarding is the inability to discard or part with an excessive amount of items. Hoarders may focus on accumulating particular things such as paper and clothing or amass vast amounts of general clutter and garbage. Parting with these items causes hoarders great distress and anxiety.

Hoarding affects about 2 to 5 percent of the general population and the disorder increases as we age. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM, 5th edition) hoarding symptoms are 3 times more prevalent in older adults 55 to 95 years of age compared to people 33-44 years old.

For anyone, hoarding can negatively impact quality of life. For older adults, the behavior can lead to detrimental consequences. Blocked walking paths in the home can cause a senior to fall and become trapped unable to call for help. A house can become an environmental hazard leading to illness. For example, mold infestation often leads to respiratory problems in seniors who already may have heart and lung disorders. In addition, elderly hoarders tend to isolate themselves because they are embarrassed to have anyone come to the home. This isolation can lead to increased depression and anxiety.

And homes with excessive amounts of clutter and debris are a greater fire hazard not only to the occupant but to firefighters. The National Fire Protection Association says debris in the homes of hoarders blocks windows and exits making rescue difficult and increasing injury and death to both responders and individuals living in the home.

Identifying a Hoarder

A person who hoards is different from someone who has a collection. Overall, collectors are usually very organized with their possessions and take great pride in neatly sorting, cataloging, and displaying their items. They also usually stick to a budget, and don’t allow the collection to overtake or negatively affect their lives. Collecting enhances a person’s life versus hoarding which greatly reduces quality of life. Hoarders also:

  • Have difficulty discarding items–even those with no value like rotten food.
  • Accumulate vast amount of items which they don’t need (dirty plastic bags, empty soda cans, loose pieces of wire).
  • Experience obvious anxiety and distress about throwing away items.
  • Show embarrassment in their circumstance but at the same time are not as bothered by it as others.
  • Are no longer able to use a living space as intended (unable to bathe because the bathtub is full of stuff).


Helping a Hoarder

Hoarding is a mental disorder and the behavior is not because someone is simply being lazy. Currently the best treatment for hoarding disorder is cognitive behavior therapy. Locate a mental health professional who has experience treating people with hoarding issues. While there is no single medication to specifically treat the disorder, hoarders often experience depression and anxiety. Medications may be given to treat those conditions which may reduce hoarding symptoms.  In addition, if you have an elderly loved one who is hoarding remember to:

  • Always show love and respect to the individual.
  • Don’t take control and remove items without their consent.
  • Take small steps. Offer to help declutter by focusing on clearing one small area a day (a kitchen drawer, or small pile of magazines).
  • Offer to locate a therapist and/or organizational professional who has experience working with people with hoarding disorders. Contact the National Association of Senior Move Managers who have professionals trained to help seniors not only move but age in place (https://www.nasmm.org/index.cfm).




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