How to Help Your Elderly Loved One “Clean House”
Several people I know have a problem with elderly loved ones who can’t bear to part with all kinds of “stuff.” When their home is no longer a safe or sanitary place to be, or it comes time to move them out of their homes, the elderly person wants to keep everything. Their children often have to make difficult and upsetting decisions for them. If they still have access to credit cards and a computer, many order a lot of stuff that they don’t need. Deliveries arrive frequently, and unopened packages littler the house. Some might call this “hoarding,” but is it? And what can be done to help your loved one keep just the necessities and a few sentimental items, while maintaining a kind and respectful relationship with them?
What is Hoarding?
True hoarding is a complex disorder that is not yet fully understood by the mental health profession. It can be compulsive shopping or just saving so many things that it leads to health and safety issues in the home. It can put a strain on the person’s and/or the caregiver’s finances. The most common items hoarded are newspapers, magazines, clothing and books. Elderly people might say they acquire and keep all that “stuff” because they believe that an item will be useful or valuable in the future. Or they feel some things are unique, hold sentimental value and are irreplaceable. When compulsive shopping is the problem, the explanation might be finding “deals,” even if the deal is something they don’t need or want.
Signs and Symptoms of Hoarding
Hoarding is different from cluttering and collecting. Hoarders will save random items from their daily lives and store them haphazardly. Throwing away things, selling, giving away, or even recycling is very difficult for them. Their disorder interferes with life. Some symptoms and behaviors to watch for include:
- Holding onto things with no value, such as junk mail, newspapers, old clothing or broken items
- Keeping shades drawn, not allowing visitors or family members in, neglecting repair work
- Unsanitary conditions or lack of functional living space
- Obsessive shopping or “retail therapy”
- Having an intense sentimental attachment to objects
- Having more animals than they can properly care for
- Being unable to distinguish between what is trash and what is not
- Not considering the safety and health consequences of having too many things
Health Risks of Hoarding
Hoarding can pose the risk of physical injuries as well as serious health conditions, including:
- Serious injuries from falling due to the inability to maneuver around items
- The risk of fire from numerous flammable items, which can also make it difficult to remove an elderly person from a fire in their home
- Lack of sanitation puts an immune-compromised elderly person at risk for health complications. For example, mold or bacteria growth or high ammonia levels from pets can cause serious health issues
How to Help an Elderly Loved One Minimize their Stuff
If your mom or dad are still in their home, health and safety issues may need to be addressed. Tell them how much it worries you to have obstructed paths or unsanitary conditions, and how it keeps you from doing your best job as their caregiver. Even if your elderly loved one says they will clean up their home and/or reduce the amount of their stuff, the chances are good that won’t be able to do it without your insistent help. It can be difficult for an elderly person to make all kinds of decisions. When it comes to deciding which possessions acquired over a lifetime they can bear to part with, it’s even harder. You may have to resort to “temporary” solutions, such as saying you will:
- Keep some “treasured” items in your home, in case they are needed later
- Rent a storage unit to reassure them that their things are still available
- Pack things in baskets or boxes to be “gone through later”
- Keep their credit card safe and under your direction, for whenever they ask for it
Helping to clean the home may seem the obvious answer to clutter, but it won’t always be a welcome solution to your elderly loved one. They may be quick to react emotionally to someone interfering with or “stealing” their things, so it is best to enlist their cooperation before beginning. It’s not realistic to expect that a hoarder will change with a little assistance. Cleaning interventions have mixed results. Caregivers might always have to help keep a hoarder’s home clean and clutter free. Because true hoarding may be connected to emotional and mental health issues like OCD, depression, and anxiety, it may be necessary to seek professional help.
Tips for Accomplishing a Major Cleanup
- Start slowly. Work on one room or area for no more than two hours at a time.
- Narrow decisions to yes/no questions. Pre-sort multiples of things like clothing, kitchenware or tools before giving your loved one options of which things to keep.
- Don’t have “maybe” piles. Handle objects only once and help your parent be decisive.
- If you have the space to temporarily store things like holiday decorations or seasonal clothing in another location, be sure mark boxes or other containers clearly.
- Box-up piles of possibly valuable paperwork for going through and organizing later.
- Scale down collections. Ask for the story behind objects to help your loved one decide which things they really want to keep. Take pictures so they can keep the memory if not the object.
- When deciding what to throw out, go by what they actually use, not by what is newest or best.
- Cover the dining room table with objects other family members might want, and then let them choose items in a pre-determined order.
- Recycle, donate or sell on consignment. Keep a receipt for donations to a charity that could be tax-deductible. Remember, the value of an item is what someone is willing to pay for it.
- If an item is meant to be a gift to a specific family member, encourage giving it now.
- Target recipients for specialty item. Examples: Schools may welcome musical instruments or costumes. Auto repair shops and community maintenance departments may take tools.
- In some communities, setting items on the curb with a sign that says “Free! Help yourself!” will make items miraculously disappear.
- Enlist the help of an outside agency – If the clutter is either not safe or too much for your family to handle, an outside agency may be able to help.
- For a price, you don’t have to haul it away yourself. The local garbage company may have limits on how many large black trash bags it will take, and not all local dumps take unsorted trash, either.
- Waste Management’s Bagster is a smaller-scale alternative to a Dumpster. Buy one of its large bags at a home-improvement retailer (about $30, depending on pickup location), fill with up to 3,300 pounds of trash, and call to schedule a pickup.
- Services like 1-800-Got-Junk and 1-800-Junk-USA remove appliances and furniture as well as smaller items.
- Smaller local junk dealers may haul things away for free if they see, on appraisal, items that they’ll be able to sell.
You won’t always be able to get permission from your loved one to give away or throw away excessive clutter or things there aren’t room for in a move to your home or assisted living. Presenting the “temporary” solutions mentioned above may help to keep your relationship on an even keel until the situation changes. Look for future blogs related to this topic.