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Good to Know: Strategies for coping with a parent who hoards

In an all-too-common scenario, an adult child struggles

In an all-too-common scenario, an adult child struggles to a parent to clean out the house and stop bringing in more stuff, only to face resistance. Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto / trekandshoot

The pain and frustration are palpable.

“I hired a maid . . . [My mother] didn’t talk to me for months. I filled two construction dumpsters full, and there was still 2,400 square feet left to clean up. Eventually, the maid quit when my dad berated her for throwing away a plate with petrified ketchup gluing a dead mouse to it. That was the last time I tried to ‘help.’ ”

This comment, posted on a Children of Hoarders website discussion board, provides a glimpse into the daily lives of those with a parent who hoards.

It’s an all-too-common scenario: The adult child struggles to get his or her parent to clean out the house and stop bringing in more stuff, only to face resistance.

“What tends to happen . . . is that you’ve tried to solve the problem by arguing and by threatening and by demanding, and it hasn’t worked,” said Michael Tompkins, a licensed psychologist and co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy. “And so the result is the relationships get very damaged, and there’s a lot of resentment and mistrust and hurt feelings.”

HOARDING, A MENTAL ILLNESS

Hoarding is not just extravagant collecting or extreme messiness. Hoarding disorder was classified as a mental illness in 2013 in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Though hoarding usually begins in childhood, older adults are particularly vulnerable to its consequences, Tompkins said. They may be frail and prone to falls in a cluttered environment; malnourishment can worsen because kitchen clutter may make it hard to cook; the sensory “blunting” that comes with age may prevent them from knowing when food is rotten; dementia can worsen symptoms; and they may be isolated. Emergency personnel often have a hard time accessing hoarders’ homes, and the collected materials pose a pest and fire hazard, both for the resident and neighbors.

Besides dementia, hoarding disorder is the only mental health disorder that increases in severity and prevalence with age, said Catherine Ayers, an associate clinical professor in the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in hoarding.

What’s more, hoarding disorder is difficult to treat, leaving family members at a loss as to what to do. People with hoarding disorder “tend to not recognize that their beliefs are dysfunctional or abnormal. And then [they] think the rest of us are wasteful or irresponsible or unethical,” said psychologist C. Alec Pollard, director of the Center for OCD and Anxiety-Related Disorders at St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute.

SUPPORT GROUPS

It’s important to stop “accommodating” the hoarding behavior, which means protecting your loved one from the consequences of his or her actions, experts say. That means you don’t clean up after your parent or pay bills that resulted from damage caused by the hoarding, because that breeds more resentment on your part.

Bec Belofsky Shuer acknowledged that family members can become “overwhelmed, resentful, absolutely frustrated and full of blame.”

She and her husband, Lee Shuer -- who calls himself “an excessive finder-keeper in recovery” -- founded Mutual Support Consulting to offer help for others who want to keep their relationships intact.

The Shuers have developed and run peer-recovery workshops and facilitator trainings around the country. They urge family members of older adults who hoard to get them connected to services like case management or home health care.

What if your parent refuses treatment? Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon, Tompkins said.

“Older adults with hoarding disorder are generally not open to treatment for the condition,” he said. The alternative approach is called “harm reduction.”

“You embrace the assumption that as long as the behavior continues, we’re going to minimize the risk,” Tompkins said.

Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg, Emily Gurnon and Shayla Stern write rotating columns on money, health and lifestyle. Readers can contact them at reisenberg@nextavenue.org and sstern@nextavenue.org.

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