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.


Senior Outreach Services, Care Management Program: (925) 937-8311
Obsessive-Compulsive Information Center: (608) 827-2470