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Hoarding: A Sign of Elderly OCD?

We all have parents or relatives who struggle to part with what we deem to be useless junk. It might be a dull-looking party favor your mother never looks at, but when you pull it out to toss it in a trash bag, she tells you a whole story of a summer fling you never knew about. It has no inherent value, and yet she becomes visibly upset at the thought of letting it go. This type of behavior is quite normal.

However, when your loved one becomes upset at the thought of getting rid of something that has no story, no meaning behind it, or when piles of “saved” items start to accumulate and make the house a hazard, you may be looking at signs of hoarding. Frequent items hoarders collect include clothing, newspapers, and junk mail.

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Hoard Definition

Hoarding on its own is concerning, and in older adults it is often described as a form of adult OCD or elderly OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). According to the National Institutes of Health, compulsive hoarding occurs more often and more severely in older adults than in the general population. Beyond having a cluttered living space and a lot of wasted space, elderly hoarding symptoms can have a devastating impact on older adults’ well-being. The Psychiatric Times cites increased risk of the following dangers:

  • food contamination (often occurs when individuals hoard food items or containers)
  • fall risk (resulting from increased clutter)
  • fires
  • mold
  • poor hygiene and nutrition (resulting from dirt and dust from accumulating piles)
  • rodent infestation
  • social isolation

Help for Hoarders

The dirt and dust accumulation can exacerbate existing health problems, but it can be difficult for older adults to let go of the things they collect. Compulsive hoarding falls on the OCD spectrum because its symptoms are similar to OCD symptoms or anxiety disorder symptoms. Individuals with severe OCD experience intense anxiety when they cannot perform their rituals, such as needing to count objects a certain number of times. Compulsive hoarders experience a similarly intense anxiety when confronted with moving or throwing away their collections.

For that reason, the best way to help a hoarder may be with compassion and understanding of the disorder. If you are looking for resources, The Anxiety and Depression Association of America ran a helpful podcast on what triggers hoarding in older adults and what family members of compulsive hoarders can do to help their loved ones.

Do you have an aging family member with hoarding tendencies? What methods have you used to help them overcome their compulsions?