What is Hoarding Disorder?

Hoarding is a mental condition where a person has a strong desire to save a large number of various items and objects, whether they have monetary value or not. They could be everyday items like plastic containers from food, newspapers, magazines, unopened store bought items, broken second hand items and in some cases animals.

This behavior is classified as an OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is anxiety based, and can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle as well as unsafe or unsanitary living conditions.

Typical symptoms of hoarding disorder

The classic symptom is the inability to get rid of possessions, regardless of its condition, which is accompanied by extreme stress when attempting to throw things away. There’s a heavy distrust of any people touching or moving possessions, and a withdrawal from family and friends. This behavior can lead to a reclusive lifestyle of social isolation.

Does your loved one have these symptoms?

Do you have an elderly loved one who shares some of these hoarding symptoms? If so, you know how difficult it can be to help them declutter their home. Often, they are attached to their belongings and find it difficult to let go because they think they are throwing away memories or valuable items.

We all possess special items that hold meaning, so it’s understandable why your loved one may be reluctant to deal with the clutter in their life. Nostalgia can be a major obstacle when trying to move forward.

Why they might justify keeping an item

For senior hoarders part of the condition is the ability to strongly justify why an item should be kept. This rationale can apply to an appliance as well as a dirty used condiment jar. Some of the reasons they may use to justify keeping an item are:

  • They don’t know where it should go, so they keep it till they figure it out.
  • They think it helps remind them of something they can’t quite articulate.
  • It was a bargain and therefore worth keeping even if it’s something they will never use.
  • It might be common or trivial but they perceive it as irreplaceable.
  • They believe it will come of use at some future date. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as future syndrome—the idea that “I might need this sometime in the future.

Helping them find an effective way to get rid of items that no longer serve their needs, can help them begin to see what matters to them in the present, not in the past or the future.

Consequences of Hoarding Disorder

Hoarding Disorder is a legitimate medical condition; and it is estimated that nearly 1 in 20 senior adults might be considered a senior hoarder based on these signs. A Johns Hopkins study recently uncovered that a shocking 4% of the population struggles with hoarding tendencies, but this number jumps to 6.2% amongst those over 55 years old.

Hoarding can take an emotional toll and have physical and financial ramifications – or even legal repercussions in extreme cases. It can also be a sign of the onset of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or another form of mental illness.

The consequences of hoarding can include:

  • Home safety issues: Potential for in-home fires and difficulty for emergency responders to access the home during an emergency.
  • Adequate hygiene: Is the bathtub or shower cluttered with discarded bags and scraps of paper, indicating a lack of cleanliness?
  • Potential sickness: Derived from possible old food, mold, mildew, and possible pet feces.
  • Malnourishment: Eating spoiled food can result in severe health issues such as foodborne illnesses.
  • Unwanted pests such as mice, rats, and bugs.
  • Have the utilities been turned off? With extreme cold and heat posing dangerous risks, it’s important to ensure air conditioning, heating systems and running water are in working order.

In this blog post, we will discuss four ways you can help your loved one comfortably declutter their home.

1. Identify areas that need the most attention

If you are looking to help a loved one who is a hoarder, it can be challenging to know where to start. The first step is to look through their home and determine which areas need attention. This could be anywhere from a room filled with clutter to just a few small areas that overwhelm them. Once you identify these spaces, work together to plan how and when each space will be tidied.

While approaching this task in a compassionate way, do your best to protect your loved one’s sense of independence – they should have some input every step of the way.


To make sure you get off to a solid start, AARP has eight simple recommendations for creating an action plan:

  1. Begin by discarding all trash.
  2. Select a single spot to start organizing – such as a drawer.
  3. Separate items into three piles: one for what to keep, one for what to donate, and one for what to toss.
  4. Give every item a designated space – like a hook for keys – so that they know exactly where to locate them.
  5. Consolidate similar items into one location to make it easier and more efficient for them to locate.
  6. Make a commitment: for every new item purchased, decide to let go of something else and limit the number of items in the home.
  7. If they’re holding onto items they want to pass to the next generation, be sure they ask those family members beforehand if they want those items. Make sure they are prepared for them to possibly say no.
  8. Instead of trying to tackle everything all at once, set aside small chunks of time regularly to address the issue of decluttering and organizing.

In addition to creating an action plan, to organize necessary materials such as gloves and trash bags in advance. Taking the time upfront to strategize and equip yourself with the right tools, can make this process more manageable for both of you.

Above all else, remember that this journey will take time. With patience and understanding, you can help them reclaim their home together.

2. Talk to your loved one about their needs and concerns

Understanding why someone has difficulty parting with certain items can be challenging, so it is critical to approach decluttering compassionately. If your loved one might be classified as a senior hoarder, having a heartfelt conversation with them is essential in order to recognize why they are struggling to let go. Listening carefully and showing openness to their needs and concerns allows you both to understand what is holding them back and can help create suitable solutions.

If your family member is open to discussing their hoarding, use the following tips to make sure your conversation is effective and meaningful:

  • Honor their independence. Respect that each individual has the right to make decisions for themselves, at their own pace and comfort level.
  • Show empathy. Be cognizant that every person has emotional connections to their possessions. Make an effort to understand how personally meaningful these objects are for them.
  • Encourage them. Brainstorm ways to create a safer home environment, like tidying up doorways and hallways from excess items.
  • Work together. Working together is the key to success. Rather than debating what your loved one should keep or throw away, discover what will motivate them to either organize or purge items.
  • Look back. Show your loved one how hoarding stands in the way of their aspirations or values. For example, with some decluttering, they can start hosting social gatherings and lead a more vibrant personal life.
  • Always ask. To establish trust, never toss anything out without asking your loved one first.

When conversations become overwhelming for either party, take a break and try discussing things later. Reassure your loved one that you are there for them throughout this process, and together, you will overcome the task at hand. This approach towards decluttering will help your loved one feel more secure and comfortable with their decisions.

Most importantly, remind your loved one that you are on their side and care deeply about their emotional well-being. Let them know it is okay to express sadness or fear without judgment.

3. Explain how clutter can be hazardous

Explaining the possible risks of senior hoarding respectfully allows your older loved one to make informed decisions that consider their long-term needs. It also helps them to understand how important it is for their home environment to remain uncluttered and organized.

There are many reasons why clutter can be hazardous; however, the four most significant are:

  1. Safety Hazards: For the elderly and those with disabilities, living in a chaotic home can be extremely hazardous. Clutter restricts movement, which increases the risk of falling.
  2. Fire Hazards: Not only can clutter obstruct paths of escape in a home, but it is also an extreme fire hazard. Boxes, paper and other combustible items fuel the flames during a blaze.
  3. Health Hazards: If left unchecked, clutter can create a breeding ground for potential health risks. Spoiled food items attract rats, cockroaches and other pests, which may cause allergies to flare up or worsen pre-existing breathing issues. To keep your home safe from these dangers, it is essential to regularly clean and dispose of anything that has outlived its use.
  4. Other Serious Consequences: Fractures from falling, social isolation, conflicts with neighbors and family members, and eviction are all possible scenarios.

Ultimately, having open and honest conversations about clutter hazards helps with your loved one’s safety and comfort as they age. You contribute to creating a cleaner home for them by providing an understanding atmosphere where they feel seen, heard and respected.

4. Work together to decide what to do with items

If a full-scale home purging is too overwhelming for your loved one, start by dedicating a solid window of two hours per week to the task, and get started right away—room by room. Start by creating four piles to tackle the clutter: keep, donate, sell, and toss.

Put your “donate” and “sell” items near you for easy access; position the “toss” (or trash) pile closer to where you’ll be working; place the “keep” items further away. This simple organization tip will help make decluttering more manageable.

What to keep:
When deciding whether to keep an item, have your loved one consider the purpose of the object, how frequently they use it, their need for it, and its sentimental value. If something is broken, unused for weeks, or lacks emotional attachment, then chances are they don’t need to keep it. On the other hand, if the item brings them joy, is used regularly, and functions properly, then it makes sense to keep it.

What to donate:
Thrift stores are one of the quickest ways to get rid of clutter. Good things to donate are gently worn clothing, toys, games, housewares, dishes and books. However, be sure you don’t include items that are broken, dirty, in need of replacement parts, stained, etc. Have your loved one ask themselves if they would buy the item in its current condition; if not, then it’s probably best to consider throwing it away.

What to toss:
Discard any paperwork or bills that are no longer needed. Be sure to shred these documents before discarding them, so relatives are not at risk of having their identity stolen. Discard any items that show excessive wear and tear, such as damaged apparel or broken dishes. If throwing away any broken toys or electronics, be sure you do so in accordance with your city’s local laws and ordinances.

What to sell:
For items your loved one no longer wants or needs but doesn’t want to give away, selling is the best choice. However, this is the most time-consuming option. Objects to consider selling include furniture, appliances, shoes, purses, clothing, electronics, and home decor.


Changing behavior in a senior hoarder takes time

It’s important to remember that this is not about trying to change your family member; it’s about helping them find things of value and decide what should stay and what needs to go. As you tackle the decluttering process together, encourage them in a non-judgmental way. Help them recognize their strengths and give them plenty of support.

Remind your loved one that you are a team. Let them know they have the freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions while providing support when needed. Acknowledge that it’s hard work, but try to keep things upbeat. Offer meaningful conversations rather than criticism or lectures.

Above all else, make sure they feel valued while making space for change. Emotional safety is paramount if you’re going to make meaningful progress. Remember that change takes time; don’t expect too much from one session. The most important thing is to be there for your loved one throughout the journey – offering patience, understanding, and unconditional support.

The Maxim at Home team is here to help

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Reference Links:

International OCD Foundation: What is compulsive hoarding?
Hoarding Behavior in a Community
Rummaging, Hiding, and Hoarding Behaviors
Decluttering made simple
Consequences of having too much clutter
Declutter your life
Hoarding Disorder