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How to Manage Hoarding Behaviors in a Person With Dementia

Kimberly Fowler
By Kimberly FowlerJune 11, 2017

Caring for someone with dementia comes with daily challenges. Whether they are living on their own, with family members, or in an assisted living facility, it is difficult to watch a loved one struggle with the characteristics of this complex disease. Collecting clutter is common in people with dementia, however for some, parting with what are deemed as precious possessions can cross the threshold into hoarding behavior.    

Learn more about hoarding behavior in people with dementia.

What Is Hoarding?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, people with hoarding disorder excessively save items that others may view as worthless. They have difficulty getting rid of seemingly ordinary possessions, leading to the overrun of clutter that disrupts their daily lives and living spaces. It is also believed that the initial onset of hoarding tendencies begins as a coping mechanism in childhood or early adolescence, with mild behaviors that become chronic and progressive. Three common characteristics of hoarding:

  • Collecting and keeping an array of items, even things that appear useless or of little value to most people
  • Items clutter living spaces and keep a person from using the rooms as they were intended
  • Items cause distress or problems in day-to-day activities

This disorder becomes even more complex for people living with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, symptoms of dementia, such as hoarding items — as well as rummaging or hiding — often results from memory loss, mental confusion, disorientation and/or impaired judgment.

Hoarding is more likely to happen in the early and middle stages of dementia, and is often associated with loss of control. These behaviors are in fact an attempt at reestablishing security in the life of someone living with dementia. As later stages of dementia take over, people may hoard or hide because they no longer recognize loved ones, or they are driven to search for items they believe to be missing.

How to Manage Hoarding Behavior

It is important to use a calm and supportive approach when addressing the hoarding tendencies of a person with dementia. Since the items that are being hoarded represent security, control and comfort, removing or discarding them with no warning can be greatly upsetting. When removing clutter, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests the following tips:

  • Only remove what is needed to eliminate safety and health hazards
  • Give the individual a good reason to part with their items, i.e. charity, church, family member, etc.
  • Negotiate. Trade a year’s worth of newspapers for a month’s worth. Trade rotten or expired food for fresh food
  • Be Creative. Take pictures of items that are given away, and allow the person to keep the pictures
  • Be Patient. Allow the person to take time to say goodbye to items that you may perceive as worthless
  • Remove discarded items immediately, because the person may rummage through the garbage and bring items back into their home
  • If the individual agrees to help de-clutter, give them one box of items to sort through at a time
  • When de-cluttering, start slowly and take breaks frequently
  • Be prepared for the person’s reaction and have support for the person and yourself. You may want to involve family, friends, clergy or a social worker
  • Have activities planned and ready to divert the person’s attention from the removal of their items

Mitigating temptations for future hoarding is an important step in assisting someone with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association advises monitoring purchases and spending money, blocking home shopping channels and junk mail, protecting valuables, and identifying and eliminating hiding places.

When caring for someone living with dementia, it is most important to keep an open mind and remain empathetic. What we perceive as junk may be an irreplaceable coping tool for someone. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits, and if the clutter is not posing a danger to the person’s safety or health, let it be.

How have you coped with hoarding behavior in a loved one? Share your experiences with us in the comments below. 

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Kimberly Fowler
Kimberly Fowler
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