ParentCare » Vol. 36

The Signs of Hoarding

By Liz Foss

There can be a fine line between clutter and hoarding. Most of us know someone who has lots of “stuff,” and the older we get, the more time we have had to collect a lot of things. Someone who has clutter, though, usually can be motivated to tidy up. Hanging on to things because they have some emotional meaning isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, even if the object doesn’t have any monetary value. I just recently discarded my notes from grad school, which I hadn’t looked at for at least 30 years. But hoarding goes beyond clutter and sentimentality.

Some signs of hoarding:

  • Accumulated piles of mail and unpaid bills.
  • Picking up free, unneeded or worthless items.
  • Difficulty walking safely through the home.
  • Difficulty managing activities of daily living.
  • Expired food in the refrigerator.
  • Jammed closets and drawers.
  • Compulsive shopping.
  • Expired medications in medicine cabinets.
  • Keeping papers and magazines on and under beds, in the bathtub or on steps.


Why would someone keep years worth of junk mail or newspapers? The reasons can be complex and typically include emotional attachments to things beyond their intrinsic value. Hoarders may fear that the memory of the past may be lost without that tangible evidence of it. Possessions can become a companion, and thus, the more, the better. These possessions become central to hoarders’ identities, so losing or having to get rid of a possession may produce extreme anxiety or a sense of loss and grief.

Hoarding is classified as a disorder by the mental health profession, but experts say that it is one of the most difficult mental illnesses to treat, particularly because most hoarders deny they need help. Intervention may be requested by relatives, but rarely by the hoarder himself or herself.

Presenting logical arguments to a hoarder about the items they have collected and the reasons why the situation may be dangerous or uncomfortable to others in the home typically is unsuccessful. Trying to make a hoarder feel guilty is not likely to succeed, either. Threatening to leave, ridicule or throwing items away is likely to elicit negative responses or even aggressive behavior.

Getting hoarders to accept help is best done with the involvement of professionals. Enabling a person to feel he or she can retain some control may lead to incremental progress. Since depression or other mental health issues often underlie hoarding, a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective. For successful treatment, the hoarder must be willing to invest the effort, and he or she must believe it’s possible to “get better.”

For some families, there needs to be a way to live with a hoarder who isn’t willing to work on the issue. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Don’t try to fix a hoarder; hoarders must fix themselves if and when they see the need.
  • Exercise your right to protect yourself from hazardous conditions.
  • Recognize that it is reasonable for you to want to live in a comfortable and clear environment.
  • Work on boundaries that will enable you to create this comfortable, clear and safe environment.

While people seeking treatment for hoarding have an average age of 50, hoarding behaviors typically start around 13 but can be seen in children as young as 3. Many hoarders can identify another family member who shares the disorder, and there may be correlations with chaotic or frequently moving families. Whatever the cause, there is no question that hoarding can challenge families in a variety of ways. Getting help to make the environment safe is one of the first steps that can be taken.

Liz Foss runs Seniors Helping Seniors, a non-medical in-home care agency. Having worked as an accountant for nonprofits for many years, Foss now has her own business, which hires active seniors to help people remain in their homes for as long as possible. Seniors Helping Seniors provides services in Worcester County. For more information, visit, call (508) 885-6004 or email Foss at

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