Planning a senior living move is challenging enough when your loved one has limited possessions. When your loved one has hoarding disorder, the hurdles can seem insurmountable.
Thankfully, there’s hope. Terina Bainter, professional organizer and owner of Washington-based Clutter Cutters, shares her expert insight on helping seniors with hoarding disorder manage a move.
Understanding Hoarding Disorder
First, we must understand that actual symptoms and behaviors associated with hoarding disorder.
“When people think of hoarding, they think of the stuff, but it’s about more than just stuff,” explains Bainter, who earned a hoarding specialist certificate from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) and volunteers with a local hoarding task force. “Why are they hoarding? What is the underlying cause? It’s a complicated disorder.”
The American Psychiatric Association’s latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterizes hoarding disorder as “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.”
According to Bainter, hoarding may be a lifelong affliction, or a medical condition such as dementia can lead to the onset. In addition, she says 92 percent of individuals with hoarding disorder have a co-occurring mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Helping a loved one with hoarding disorder move to a senior living community is a major undertaking. Bainter recommends starting the conversation early. Ask if your loved one is willing to talk with a therapist about the stress involved in downsizing and moving.
“We all have stress about this,” she acknowledges. “Our possessions have memories attached to them, so getting rid of them is difficult.”
Of course, the level of difficulty increases with the level of hoarding disorder. ICD’s Clutter-Hoarding Scale lists five progressive levels, ranging from low (level 1) to severe (level 5).
“At level 1 or 2, you can hire a professional to help pare down what’s imperative,” says Bainter. “If you can get help when they’re in the lower levels, it’s easier to reverse what has been transpiring in the home and to sustain the changes.” If your loved one reaches level 4 or 5 on the scale, however, it becomes much more difficult to make and maintain major changes.
Don’t Force It
As much as you might feel tempted to get a dumpster and empty the house yourself, this approach to downsizing won’t help your loved one in the end.
In fact, forced clean-outs are extremely traumatic for people who hoard according to Bainter. And they generally fill the space right back up again—not an auspicious beginning to life in a senior living community.
“You can’t force somebody to do something,” she says. “The change has to come from within.”
Though there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to helping someone with hoarding challenges, Bainter says the most appropriate course of action is to express concern for your loved one’s safety in a non-judgmental manner. Be positive and supportive, and offer choices whenever possible. Let them know when moving day will be, and ask them to work with you to pare down possessions. Be sure to give them as much time as possible before that day, so they can participate in the process rather than relinquish all control.
After the Move
Once your loved one makes it safely to senior living, don’t be afraid to hire a professional organizer to help you streamline again. At that point, it will be easier to see what’s needed in the new space and what’s unnecessary.
But will the clutter come back?
“It depends on the individual and their desire for change,” says Bainter, noting the need for an internal shift. “The biggest contributing factor is when the person has decided to make those changes.”
Keep in mind that hoarding is a recoverable disorder, she adds. By steadily working with a therapist and other professionals, many individuals can maintain the changes they’ve made.
In the meantime, Bainter encourages families and friends to look at their loved ones as individuals, not “hoarders.”
“There’s so much more to an individual than just the disorder. If the disorder is in the limelight, the disorder will grow. If the whole person is in the limelight, the whole person will flourish,” she says. “When we realize there are other things to appreciate and love about them, it gives them more opportunities to reach out and ask for help.”
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