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‘Mom’s clutter is starting to look like hoarding’

By Anne Perryman

The author is a New York journalist and editor of Work & Family Life

Many older people live in cluttered homes, and when the clutter starts to get seriously out of control, it can look like hoarding. But there’s a difference.

“Clutter” is characterized by piles of papers, magazines, clothing and other collectibles that take up most or all of the surface space in a person’s home. “Hoarding” is more overwhelming. It’s typically a floor-to-ceiling accumulation, with a person’s living space significantly reduced or eliminated.

Try to understand what’s going on

Clutter and hoarding are, to some extent, the result of a consumer society that encourages us to buy things–and older people are by no means the only ones with clutter problems. When possessions in anyone’s home don’t get sorted and dealt with, they pile up.

There’s such as thing as “compulsive hoarding” too. It’s a disorder that can be found across cultures and tends to run in families. And when compulsive hoarders get “cleaned out,” they tend to refill their spaces rather quickly.

But most older people are not compulsive in that sense. They’re just people who have too much stuff that didn’t get organized. Whatever the situation with your relative, it’s important to understand why so many people hang on to things they no longer need or use. Elder issues expert Barbara Friesner of suggests some of main reasons.

Fear of getting rid of something valuable. In other words, there’s treasure in that trash, and you don’t dare throw out the trash without sorting through it for the treasures. Many people who have lived through hard times also feel strongly about not being wasteful, and the act of pitching objects en masse into landfill feels wasteful.

An emotional attachment to possessions such as wedding clothes, gifts from loved ones, or even back issues of National Geographic. Many older people are unhappy because “my children don’t want these things.”

Physical frailty or disability. It can be difficult for people who live alone or in walkup buildings or who need to climb stairs–to dispose of things. In other words, that broken TV set will stay where it is unless someone carries it out.

Depression. This is seen more and more as a significant cause of clutter. Dementia can play a role too. Your older relative may be unable to distinguish between what’s useful and what’s not.

Spiraling effect. When things pile up and get messy, people often feel ashamed and they don’t want to be found out–which, of course, makes matters worse.

Signs of a serious problem

The New York City Task Force on Hoarding cites these as possible signs that someone has a problem:

Not letting people inside the home. Prefering to meet elsewhere.

Losing things. The inability to find important documents.

Wearing the same clothes for days at a time or starting to appear unkempt. Having to move things in order to sit down or go to bed.

Complaining about problems at home with kitchen fixtures and appliances, bathroom facilities or troubles with a neighbor.

How to get started if there is a real problem

People typically have mixed emotions about their possessions: they feel anxious about losing control over their living space, but they also feel a strong attachment to their belongings.

Get a sense of how your older relative views the situation and what kind of help she or he may be willing to accept. If you come across as controlling or judgmental, you won’t get very far, said Fleisner: “It’s better to be flexible and patient.”

Just don’t be surprised if your offer to help with a clean-up is refused at first. And before you start making demands, ask yourself these questions: Is this normal clutter or is it a truly serious situation? If it’s serious, does my parent see it that way too? Is he or she able to make an informed decision? Is she or he aware of potential consequences from not taking action, such as not being able to continue to live at home?

Launching a clean-up

If the situation is in fact serious and your relative or friend agrees to a clean-up, here are some general ideas for moving forward:

Engage the person as much as possible. Make the project a collaboration, with your relative on the scene. Even major clutterers deserve some control over the fate of their possessions. Be aware that sometimes it’s easier to work with an impartial crew and a professional organizer.

Sort and organize beforehand as much as possible. This will save time in the long run–and money too, if someone is being hired to work on the clean-up. Find something your relative would enjoy sorting–like old family photos.

If pets are involved, make sure the animal is able to access a litter box, resting places and a clean feeding area. Hoarding and major clutter have a negative impact on pets as well as people.

Be kind. For many people, parting with possessions can feel like giving away a piece of themselves. In fact, material possessions can have great power over our lives. “We invest our memories, insecurities and anxieties in our objects,” writes Jamie Novak in her book “Stop Throwing Money Away.”

Recycle. Try to find organizations or people who can use the things your loved one needs to discard. It takes longer and requires more sorting and bagging, but in the long run it feels better–to everyone involved–than throwing the accumulations of a lifetime into a dumpster. It’s easier to do than you might imagine. Start with the Salvation Army, Goodwill, thrift stores and online sites such as Craigslist and eBay.

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