Collecting and Hoarding Can be a Real Problem
Do you dread visiting a friend or relative because their home is stuffed, floor to ceiling, with collected items, old newspapers and dozens of cats? Do many of these musty cartons contain instant foods or clothing dating back to the 1940’s? If your answer is yes, I suppose you also offered to take a few of the boxes to the Goodwill or the basement. Or you suggested that the mostly feral cats could live outside or go to the Humane Society.
Not only did you receive a resounding “NO!”, you discovered that the basement was also crammed, floor to ceiling. Finally when you threw out the 200 40-year-old Jello boxes, you returned the next day to find them back in the kitchen, your relative busy sorting and rearranging them.
This problem strikes many families, and it is extremely difficult to change. It is actually a psychiatric illness, called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which consists of compulsive collecting, hoarding and sorting. OCD is actually classified as an anxiety disorder, probably with a biological cause. Unfortunately, a lifetime of this behavior can result in homes rendered uninhabitable by clutter and filth.
The reason you can’t “help clean” by throwing things away is that you are threatening a deep-seated need. These compulsions can cover up underlying anxieties. An OCD sufferer often needs these behaviors to feel emotionally safe. If you take away their treasures and try to curtail the behaviors, you will make your OCD relative extremely anxious. This is why the discarded items often reappear the next day.
As you gently try to make changes, remember that this is a psychiatric condition that protects them. Also, I think these accumulations represent a lifetime of memories. It is almost as if your relative’s memories are tangible and stored in the surrounding boxes. If you cavalierly throw things away, you will terrify your relative, and you will be tossing out pieces of his or her life.
Here are some suggestions to help. Know that this problem also confounds elder-care professionals.
- Have your relative evaluated by a psychiatrist.
- Accompany your relative and ask the psychiatrist about medications like Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft. These can reduce compulsions.
- After your relative has started the medications mentioned above, plan a creative strategy to make changes.
- Involve your family and include your relative as much as possible.
- Choose a family member whom your relative prefers to suggest changes
- Be empathetic yet set clear limits.
- Consider: Do you want merely to create some living space? Could one, litter-trained, domestic cat remain?
- Can your relative move to an assisted-living facility? If so, start large-scale cleaning after the move.
- Even with a move, let your relative keep some of the collection. You could move your relative to a facility near both the family and a rental storage garage. Store some of the collection and your relative can visit the garage and sort when needed. Or leave several boxes of treasures in the new home.
- In a facility, perhaps your relative can help with small jobs that involve some collecting and sorting.
- If your relative appears very disturbed, there are cockroaches, rats, animal feces or moldy food everywhere and the house seems unsafe due to disrepair, call the Health Department and Animal Control. Then try to pursuade your relative to accept hospitalization in a Geropsychiatric unit for assessment, treatment, and medication.
- If your relative refuses, you may need a court-ordered conservatorship to take charge and ensure psychiatric help.
RESOURCES:Senior Outreach Services, Care Management Program: (925) 937-8311
Obsessive-Compulsive Information Center: (608) 827-2470