Whether you are de-cluttering for a move or trying to help a parent sort and simplify their belongings, this article will help you evaluate the level of clutter and gives you ideas on how to talk to and assist a parent with a hoarding or clutter problem. With advice on how to approach the subject, how to effectively handle the mess, and how to cure the cause, this is a must-read article for caregivers and Seniors alike!
Thin the Hoard
When Steve Ilott returns home from work, he frequently changes his clothes in his garage.
Why? The Oakville, Ontario, Canada-based professional organizer’s clothes are often permeated with odors after clearing out and organizing hoarded homes.
The pervasive smell –rotting food, garbage, mold, and pet waste – is something that professional organizers routinely mention when discussing the subtleties of hoarding that just aren’t conveyed on popular reality TV shows about people living amid piles of stuff.
Though no group is immune to hoarding and it affects the young and old and the affluent and the poor, seniors who hoard can be special cases.
Often because of compromised vision or a diminished sense of smell, some don’t realize just how far out of hand their houses have gotten. Others just become immune to the mess.
Collection or clutter?
Maria Spetalnik points out that it’s important to distinguish between chronic messiness, collecting, and hoarding. Spetalnik, a professional organizer with Conquer the Clutter, Chantilly Va., specializes in helping the elderly, those who hoard, and people who are chronically disorganized.
Collectors collect specific items, whether they’re stamps or teapots, or something else. Yes, collections can be vast and take up lots of space. But collectors, she points out, know the value of the collection and work to improve it.
Others are chronically disorganized, overcommitted, and messy.
Hoarders, on the other hand, have an inability to discard items –food wrappers, jar lids, empty containers, heaps of outdated advertising, and so forth – that others would toss.
Hoarding is considered a mental illness, so if you discover that a parent or elderly relative is hoarding, it’s important to consult a qualified therapist to get to the root of the problem.
To manage the practical aspects of hoarding – the clean-up – here are some considerations.
Don’t bring in a crew of cleaners on the sly when your parent is out of town or in the hospital. For one, it’s too invasive and it can be hurtful and cause further psychological harm. Consider how you’d feel if someone invaded your house and threw out possessions without your knowledge.
Moreover, say professional organizers, they’ll just begin the hoarding process anew.
2. Sensitive chats.
“Have an intimate conversation and explain what you see,” suggests Ilott of Decluttering.ca and director of membership for the Professional Organizers in Canada. Don’t impose standards or your will, but address the dangers and health threats of hoarding.
• Blocked doors and windows impede escape and rescue during fires, and paramedics and police can’t do their jobs effectively in an emergency.
• Piles of clutter increase the chances of slips and falls, and clutter could crash down and injure or kill someone.
• Health problems can stem from breathing in mold and dust, and insect and rodent bites and related diseases are additional dangers.
• Hoarding affects property values. A hoarded house simply won’t sell. Moreover, getting it ready for sale can be costly and time-consuming. Spetalnik points out that in extreme cases, the physical structure can be compromised. Walls can bow from stuff leaning against them, floors can collapse from excess weight, undetected water damage can cause excessive mold, and an odor can permeate the space.
• It also can harm entire neighborhoods when someone amasses junk outside. Ilott worked with someone who’d filled his own house and yard with junk. When he found that a neighbor had left for an extended overseas stay, he started filling that neighbor’s yard with metal, old bikes, and a trailer.
• Excessive shopping erodes the nest egg and can have long-term financial consequences.
3. Approach with caution.
Don’t arrive at a parent’s house with a therapist and an organizer in tow and drop a bomb on them, cautions Ilott. Instead, talk in advance with a therapist about best way to broach the subject with a parent.
“It can be easy to forget seniors are still adults, with a rich independent history behind them – cognitive challenges notwithstanding – and have the right to live the way they want to,” points out Gayle M. Gruenberg, a certified professional organizer with Park Ridge, New Jersey-based Let’s Get Organized. “Children need to try to put their own horror and frustration aside and find local resources to keep the senior safe and healthy.”
Such professionals could include exterminators, crime scene and bio-treatment cleanup crews, organizers, therapists, municipal authorities, and hoarding task forces. To find a professional organizer, see the resources section below.
“Everyone – the client, the kids, the therapist, the REALTOR®, the organizer– needs to be on board and working together,” observes Ilott.
4. Physical impairment.
Be certain that the problem is hoarding. After all, seniors sometimes can no longer function properly in their houses or maintain it.
“Some who use a cane or a walker simply can’t reach to put things away anymore. They look like hoarders with lots of stuff, but that’s the only way they can survive,” observes Spetalnik.
Others can’t maneuver the stairs to reach the litter box to clean it and some lack the strength to take out the garbage. Ilott discovered a client who couldn’t see the dirt because she needed new glasses.
So in your discussions with parents and in consultation with professionals, figure out the source of your relative’s hoarding habit. If it’s a physical impairment, employing aging-in-place strategies and rearranging the house sometimes solves the problem.
Gruenberg, for example, is working to organize and rearrange a house for a client with a misaligned hip and arthritic hands who can no longer bend or reach for things. Gruenberg aims to get all the needs of daily life on a single living level in the house. Another goal is storing everything the client uses on a daily basis in reachable spots.
5. Make a plan.
Once you’ve consulted with necessary experts and have developed a strategy, discuss it with your parent or relative. Talk about how they’ll be taken care of, explain the steps, and outline potential living arrangements for them during and after a clean-up. Ilott says that knowing about that unknown will ease their feelings of vulnerability.
6. Brace yourself.
You may not know your parents as well as you think you do, until someone unearths relics from the past. Ilott, for example, found an enormous stash of nudist magazines in one man’s house. His kids were surprised. He’s also discovered treasures, such as 5,000 jazz albums that he helped a family to sell.
7. Hire sensitive professionals.
Spetalnik says that organizing professionals can step into a hoarding situation with emotional detachment and diffuse some of the family dynamics that tend to cause drama.
“Family members get frustrated and express disappointment and anger that can make the situation worse,” she comments. “The best results come when a client is working with a cognitive behavioral therapist combined with a professional organizer.”
Look for empathetic, experienced, and patient professionals who can work one-on-one with a loved one to purge. “You really do need a circus master and guide for this,” says Ilott.
And know that the process typically takes months, not days.
8. Unearthing treasures.
A good organizer can work one-on-one with clients to respectfully pare back collections and discard unnecessary clutter.
Ilott, who calls himself Canada’s domestic archaeologist, tries to help clients understand what objects are and are not valuable. Some people keep things because of a perceived value and the notion that an object or collection will fund their future. Yet such things often have no market value.
Ilott’s philosophy: If it has no market value and no sentimental value, liberate yourself from it.
9. Gentle persuasion.
Ilott encounters numerous clients who have trouble parting with goods because objects are tied to memories. He describes his process as helping people to “rediscover as they’re letting go.” He tells clients, “Getting rid of things won’t detract from your history because you take your memories with you.”
Hoarding is a complex issue that requires knowledge, sensitivity, and caring professionals to understand and solve.
Here are some resources to get you started.
Books and news:
• Buried in Treasures by David Tolin.
• Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring by Michael A. Tompkins and Tamara L. Hartl
• Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee.
• Radio interviews–www.cbc.ca/homestretch/episode/2012/01/13/compulsive-hoarding and http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_index.php?idx=119&d=1&w=9&e=29675
Article written by: Elyse Umlauf-Garneau