The elderly often love to surround themselves at home with a lifetime of photographs and mementos that evoke happy memories. Of course, there is no harm in this, unless the clutter is accumulating alarmingly and there are signs your elderly parent or relative could be suffering from hoarding disorder. If so, you will need to take action, but slowly and steadily.

What can happen when hoarding escalates is heartbreaking. Konrad Marshall reports on “Two hoarder homes, two different points of view: Kevin and Val are in denial and anyone who says otherwise can “bugger off”; but Val is desperate to escape her “hell on earth”.

All Too Much: The people who can’t let go
By Konrad Marshall

Hoarding has only recently been diagnosed as a mental disorder, closely related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and not only causes anguish and embarrassment to sufferers, but physical dangers to their health and safety.

According to an article in The Age, the most reliable international statistics suggest that the disorder affects two per cent to six per cent of the population, and it’s not unreasonable to assume a similar figure locally. “That’s a lot of Australians,” says Professor Michael Kyrios of Swinburne University, recently returned from an international hoarding conference in San Francisco when quoted in the article. “I think there’s a little bit of it in all of us, but there is a point at which it becomes a clinical disorder – an extreme version of reality.”

Some hoarders are well aware that they have a problem and tend to feel embarrassed, sad and angry. Others are in total denial that there is any problem at all. The majority are in the middle, vacillating between being embarrassed and justifying their behaviour to anyone who finds out their secret.

This secret can and often does lead to major health and safety issues. The sheer volume and types of materials that are hoarded create a perfect environment for mould, structural problems, accidents and extreme fire hazards in the home. In extreme cases, the sufferer will not be able to cook, clean, bathe or sleep in their bed due to the overwhelming volume of materials built up in the home.

For family members worried about a loved one who may be attempting to conceal the early stages of hoarding disorder (by closing off rooms in their home, for example) or who is so inundated by ‘stuff’ that they can no longer function in their home, the best advice is to do as much reading as possible and realise that the problem has no quick fix.

Enforced clean outs will not rectify the problem and are, in fact potentially deadly. The Age article quotes Dr Chris Morgan, of the Anxiety Clinic in Richmond, Victoria, as saying “There have been suicides associated with clean-ups where people haven’t been consulted or involved.” Rushing in and cleaning out only removes the sufferer’s only defence against a cruel and difficult world, it does not address the underlying problem.

Here are five steps to follow:

1. Find a therapist who specialises in treating hoarding disorder.

2. Find a lot of patience. Don’t expect too much too fast.

3. Recognise and acknowledge small steps towards progress.

4. Remember to be kind, even when frustrated.

5. Remember that your relationship with your loved one is deeper than the hoarding.

The ability to be patient and kind will be tested regularly but, for long term results, the process of change for a hoarder must take its own course. With love, patience, understanding and time, there is a chance to make a lasting change, and for your loved one to get their life and well-being back.

For a guide to the early signs that your loved one may have a hoarding disorder, visit the International OCD Foundation.

As a qualified Seniors Real Estate Specialist, hoarding disorder is just one of the problems I see the families of elderly clients coping with, often with love but a great deal of frustration due to a lack of knowledge and assistance. At Property Focus in Sydney we are here to help, so don’t hesitate to give us a call should you require assistance and advice on any aspect of housing issues for the elderly.

Linda Coskerie, Seniors Real Estate Specialist