By Dr. Marion Somers, Ph. D., Ask Dr. Marion

QUESTION: I've been hearing that hoarding is a problem with the elderly. Please explain what hoarding is. Dee in Massachusetts, 47

ANSWER: Hoarding is becoming a "quiet epidemic" among our elderly population. Only recently has it even been addressed as an issue. A hoarder is someone who accumulates a substantial amount of items in the home, and these items serve no purpose. I'm talking about plastic shopping bags, glasses, plastic bottles, jars, tin cans, brown paper bags, magazines, and newspapers. These worthless possessions are often stacked in a haphazard way, clutter the home environment, and become a danger. Items can fall out of the closet or off of a shelf. They take up floor space and make it difficult to navigate a clear path in the home. These possessions can ultimately interfere with and endanger the hoarder's life.

There's a fine line between collecting and hoarding. Collecting is when the items are something you show off or exhibit with pride. The collector usually has a passion for and connection to the material. Hoarded items serve no function.

Many hoarders are very intelligent and educated people. Some hoarders take years to discover since they often lead otherwise normal lives. One of my hoarder clients was "outed" when a stack of newspapers caught fire and nearly caused the entire apartment building to burn down. He had nobody to check up on him so nobody knew about the thousands of newspapers he had hoarded.

A hoarder doesn't see they're being owned by the possessions. Once discovered, the problem must be addressed. But you can't just come into a hoarder's environment and clean everything out. One of my hoarder clients would buy new merchandise and never open it. These items piled up in a room for over 20 years. We discovered that she bought them only to fulfill her need to shop, which gave her a daily purpose in life. After addressing the issue, she stopped hoarding within four months.

Hoarding might need to be handled by a professional, and it's often a sign that something else is wrong with your elder loved one. There are usually other factors involved in this accumulation. When did it start? Why these particular items? Has your elder's judgment decreased? Does he/she understand the impact hoarding has on the environment, health, and neighbors?

©2006 Elder Health Resources of America, Inc.