Dear Savvy Senior: My 70-year-old mother has become somewhat of a hoarder. Since my father died a few years ago, her house is so disorganized and messy with stuff that it’s becoming a hazard. What should I do to help her? — Troubled Son
Dear Troubled: Clutter addiction is a problem that affects up to 5% of Americans, many of whom are seniors. The problems can range from moderate messiness to hoarding so severe it may be related to a mental health disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and resources that can help your mom.
Why people hoard
The reasons most people hoard is because they have an extreme sentimental attachment to their possessions, or they believe they might need their items at a later date. Hoarding can also be a sign that an older person is depressed or showing early symptoms of dementia.
Common problems for seniors who live in excessive clutter are tripping, falling and breaking a bone; overlooking bills and missing medications that are hidden in the clutter; and suffering from the environmental effects of mold, mildew and dust, even living among insects and rodents.
What to do
To get a handle on your mom’s problem, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization offers a free “Clutter Hoarding Scale” that you can download off its website at ChallengingDisorganization.org.
If you find that your mom has a moderate cluttering problem, there are a number of things you can do to help.
Start by having a talk with her, respectfully expressing your concern for her health and safety, and offering your assistance to help her declutter.
If she takes you up on it, most professional organizers recommend decluttering in small steps. Take one room at a time or even a portion of a room at a time. This will help prevent your mom from getting overwhelmed.
Before you start, designate three piles or boxes for your mom’s stuff — one pile is for items she wants to keep and put away, another is the donate pile and the last is the throwaway pile.
You and your mom will need to determine which pile her things belong in as you work. If your mom struggles with sentimental items that she doesn’t use, like her husband’s old tools or mother’s china, for example, suggest she keep only one item for memory’s sake and donate the rest to family members who will use them.
You will also need to help her set up a system for organizing the kept items and new possessions.
If you need some help with the decluttering and organizing, consider hiring a professional organizer who can come to your mom’s home to help you prioritize, organize and remove the clutter. The nonprofit group National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals has a directory online at NAPO.net to help you locate a professional in your area.
If your mom has a bigger, more serious hoarding problem (if her daily functioning is impaired, or if she is having financial difficulties, health problems or other issues because of her hoarding), you’ll need to seek professional help. Antidepressants and/or talk therapy can help address control issues, anxiety, depression and other feelings that can underline hoarding tendencies, and make it easier for her to confront her disorder.
To learn more and find professional help, see the International OCD Foundation, which provides a hoarding center on its website (hoarding.iocdf.org) that offers information, resources, treatments, self-help groups and more. Also see HoardingCleanup.com, a site that has a national database of qualified resources including cleaning companies and therapists that can help.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.