Transitioning a parent to a senior living situation is already difficult; but dealing with a parent who is a hoarder can really test a family’s sanity. Unfortunately, Diogenes Syndrome, also known as senile squalor syndrome, is more common than you may think.
Many people may all be guilty of hoarding to a slight degree. I, for example, hold on to my son’s amazing ‘works of art’ that many might consider elementary doodles. But hey, Picasso’s doodles are now worth millions and are on display in museums, right? My husband also wanted to know why I wanted to keep a lock of hair from our son’s first haircut. I explained, “For sentimental reasons.”
I definitely don’t consider myself a hoarder. Quite the contrary, to be exact. I’ve moved quite a bit and don’t hesitate to throw out or donate many things just because I’m ‘sick of them’ or because the house ‘needs a change.’ BUT I can understand how people can become hoarders. Simple justifications and sentimental reasons, as described above, can really add up when someone suffers from the disorder. And aging can actually bring on Diogenes Syndrome, or elderly hoarding.
When Your Mom Is a Hoarder
Many families are dealing with parents/loved ones who were hoarders. Sometimes forms of dementia and frontal lobe impairment can bring on Diogenes syndrome. The disorder is actually characterized by extreme self-neglect, domestic squalor, social withdrawal, apathy, compulsive hoarding of rubbish and lack of shame, according to the American Geriatrics Society. Living alone for long periods of time without appropriate social interaction, a lack of cognitive stimulation, a traumatic event, as well as, a genetic predisposition to the condition, can all be a catalyst for the syndrome. This is why assisted living is sometimes a good option for seniors to keep socially stimulated and mentally engaged.
Jane Brogan’s mother is a hoarder as she describes in a recent article she wrote:
“My mother wasn’t always a hoarder. In pictures from before I was born, I can see an almost sterile home. There is no clutter, there are wide open spaces. I was 3 years old when my mother developed an interest in antiques. Later that year, my oldest brother was killed in a car crash, and my family imploded. One brother left home, another enlisted in the Navy, another brother got involved with drugs. The youngest of the boys was in high school. My sisters were 11 and 9 when my brother died. But my mother’s way of dealing with her loss was to become an “antiques collector.” She was a child of the Depression, and the tendency to hold on to things hearkened back to a poor childhood. But, in reality, what she collected was mostly junk, that just kept increasing over time… Mom has Alzheimer’s now. She built a cocoon of belongings around her, and now the cocoon is around her mind… The den and cellar are wall-to ceiling junk.”
We all know that idiosyncrasies can be exacerbated with age. Hoarding is no different. In some instances, it’s all ready a problem, as in Jane’s situation. In others, it’s purely a dementia/symptom of an individual’s own aging habits. But regardless of how it starts, it can be a real problem when it’s time to move mom—or dad—into senior living.
Sorting Through The Mess That Remains: A Trying Feat
Transitioning a loved one into senior housing is already challenging. Having to clean through a hoarder’s personal belongings and deciding what to do with the house adds a whole new difficulty to the situation.
Yes, A&E brings in an entire crew to clean up extreme hoarder’s messes; and you probably only have yourself or your family members to help sort through the collection of belongings left in a house. Whether it’s a case of accumulated memorabilia/belongings of living in the same house for 50+ years, or an extreme case of Diogenes Syndrome, sorting through someone’s belongings is exhausting. Here are a few tips to help you through:
- Enlist a cleaning crew. Whether it’s your sibling, friends or many family members, get a group of people together to start the cleaning process.
- Set a date. It’s inevitable—it has to be done. Schedule a date—preferably a Saturday morning—to start the process.
- Work room by room. Forget about the 5 rooms that need to be done and start sorting through the first room. Huge tasks of outrageous proportions, broken up into small segments seem more attainable. And it helps to have moral support with you. By taking a room by room approach, your progress will be noticeable on day one.
- Assign tasks and develop a system. As you go through each room, set aside a place for each of the following:
>Keepsakes and valuables
And finally… Once you’ve done this in all the rooms, hire both a professional to:
- Clear the trash (such as 1-800-GOT JUNK or a dumpster service)
- Professionally clean
This whole process could take a month or so, depending on whether you want to power through. Don’t get frustrated. Set goals and know that your mission will eventually get accomplished.
If you have experience in this situation, please comment below and share anything that may be of help to someone else dealing with this problem. Thanks!