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‘Red flags’ for hoarding must be taken seriously

Joan Hatem-Roy, Chief Executive Officer

Q: I have a casual acquaintance I’ll call Sarah. Together, we go out to dinner or attend social events. When we pick Sarah up, I am never invited into her home. A mutual friend described the apartment as extremely cluttered, with piles of newspapers, magazines, and clothes covering almost every surface. My friend is convinced Sarah is hoarding, and now I wonder if that is true. Sarah is highly educated, with a successful career, and we don’t understand how this has happened to someone with her background. Is there any way to obtain help even if she doesn’t recognize she has a problem?

A: Without seeing her home environment, it is impossible to label Sarah’s behavior as hoarding, but your description sends up a “red flag.” Hoarding behavior must be taken seriously. It can result in the deterioration of a person’s physical health, trigger safety and health code violations, and threaten emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing.

Hoarding behavior is a complex issue and more common than the public might think. It typically presents three components: failure to discard many items which are useless or of limited value; living spaces cluttered so that using them for their intended purpose becomes impossible; and an impairment of functioning because of this clutter. Many people with hoarding disorder form irrational emotional attachments to items, convinced they will need them in the future. They cannot make decisions about donating or throwing things away.

It is important to remember that hoarding isn’t about the “stuff” in someone’s home. A high percentage of people with hoarding behavior have underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Friends, neighbors, and family members are often more concerned about the problem than the individual. Counseling and establishing trust between the person and a mental health professional is critical to the success of any possible intervention.

Individuals forced to clean and remove accumulated possessions they regard as treasures may only repeat the hoarding behavior. People must actively participate in cleaning their environment, helping to craft an action plan that fulfills achievable goals. This won’t happen overnight but will take time and support offered without judgment or resentment.

If you are concerned your friend could be exhibiting hoarding behavior, call our Information and Referral Department at 1-800-892-0890. They can connect you with trained professionals who can answer your questions and give guidance. Elder Services offers a variety of support groups and counseling, for those experiencing hoarding behavior and for their families and caregivers.

Are you struggling to care for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our experienced staff is available to help. Visit us online at www.ESMV.org for more information. You can also call us at 1-800-892-0890 or email ageinfo@esmv.org. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and North Shore.