Your whole life, your senior loved one has been responsible, clean, and orderly. Yet now when you visit you see piles of mail, clutter covering every surface, and items strewn around.

There are a number of issues that can cause this kind of change in a senior. Dementia makes it hard to think to clear out unnecessary items or remember what’s worth keeping. Physical issues related to aging can make dealing with physical items more challenging– carrying items and kneeling to pick things up both become harder.

Whatever the causes in your loved one’s case, hoarding is serious issue. It increases the risk of falls. As a home gets filled with an excess of stuff, it becomes more difficult to keep clean and the risk of harmful bacteria increases. And it affects a person’s quality of life – it’s harder to be comfortable in a home when almost every available surface is covered with clutter.

If your loved one has started hoarding, then it’s important for you to step in and help. But first, you have to figure out if that’s actually what’s going on.

Some seniors lived through the depression and learned to be extremely careful about not wasting things. Hanging onto items they don’t need may not necessarily be a sign of trouble, but there’s a point where having too much stuff tips into hoarding. Here are some warning signs to look out for.

Man cooking in obsolete kitchen

1. You Notice Items Aren’t Organized or Put Away.

People who are intentional about collecting items of various sorts will often figure out a way to organize what they have. There’s a difference between a huge collection of books or dolls that are neatly arranged on shelves and piles of items taking over a room.

If many of the items your loved one owns seem to have simply been placed wherever there was room for them, with no thought to how they look there or how easy they’ll be to find once they need them again, that points to a problem.

2. Floors and Surfaces Are Covered With Things.

The more items a hoarder has, the harder it becomes to find somewhere to put them. Once they start to run out of space in cabinets and on shelves, all the countertops and floor space in the house start to take up the slack. If you notice that there’s nowhere left to set something down on a countertop and little floor space that isn’t covered, then your loved one is likely a hoarder.

3. It’s Hard to Open Doors Because of the Items Piling Up Behind Them.

A side effect of all that stuff taking up space on the floor is that it starts to block the doorways. When there’s so little space left in the house that even opening the doors without hitting things becomes impossible, then you know things have gotten out of control.

4.  The Home Is so Full That There’s Overflow Into the Yard.

The next step when there’s no room left in the house is the yard. Keep an eye out for items that don’t belong outside starting to show up in the front and back yards. If there’s no good reason for something to be there except that there’s not room for it anywhere else, then there’s a problem.

5. Rooms Are Too Full to Do Basic Living Tasks.

Moving through the house, doing basic chores, and doing food prep all require having some space to work with. Once the house ceases to have enough floor space to walk from one room to the next and the kitchen is so crowded that basic cooking tasks are impossible, your loved one’s hoarding is starting to affect their basic health and quality of life.

6. They Don’t Want People Coming into Their Home.

Some hoarders are embarrassed at the state their home is in. If your loved one starts to make excuses to keep you or anyone else from coming to visit, it may be because they’re hiding something.

7. They Get Upset When You Suggest They Get Rid of an Item.

One of the differences between the everyday clutter many of us deal with and the items a hoarder collects is that hoarders start to feel an emotional attachment to the stuff they have. If your loved one has simply let the house get a little messy, they probably won’t care if you come in and start throwing unnecessary items away. If they really have a hoarding problem, then they’ll have a hard time letting go of those items – even if they appear to be junk to an outside observer.

Portrait of happy healthcare worker walking and talking with senior woman. Elder woman gets help from nurse for a walk through nursing home.

How to Help Your Loved One

Unfortunately, if your loved one is a hoarder, they’re not going to take it well when you start suggesting a purge of their excess of items. You should expect to take things slow in working toward a solution.

  • Help them find a therapist. First things first, seek outside help. Some seniors are resistant to therapy, but a professional therapist is your best bet to helping your loved one move past their hoarding. Have a gentle conversation with them about your concerns and urge them to start talking to someone.
  • Consider a senior living facility. In some cases, senior hoarding is caused by illnesses or disorders that will make it hard for your loved one to continue living at home. If you think it may be time to consider a senior living facility where your loved one can receive more frequent care, start talking to them about it. It won’t be easy for them to hear, but if it’s a matter of their personal safety and well being, it’s an important conversation to have.
  • Work together to clear out the house. Now to the practical concern of cleaning up all that clutter and mess. Much of it will be best sent to the trash, and you can hire professional services to help with clearing out the junk and cleaning the home.

For the items that are worth hanging onto (or that your loved one simply isn’t willing to part with yet), figure out what can reasonably stay in their home – whether it’s the current home or a new room in a nearby assisted living facility – and what will need to be kept elsewhere. The items that won’t safely fit where they live can be moved to a storage facility so they still have access to them, but don’t risk tripping over them each day.

If you realize that your loved one is a hoarder, try to be as gentle and understanding in how you approach them as possible. Letting go of these items that seem worthless to you will be difficult for them, and it’s important that they’re able to take the steps a professional recommends in their own time.

But don’t idly sit by and let it get worse, it’s a problem you both have to address and work on together.

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Kristen Hicks