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HOARDING Things: Why?

Posted Mar 15 2010 8:23am

As we anticipate Spring and try to get a handle on our increasingly busy and stressful lives, one way we try to accomplish this is by clearing clutter from our lives.

What do we no longer need?

When we speak of the clutter in our lives, we often think of things–such as clothing, paperwork, books, furniture, appliances, and more. Seeing the result of our efforts to remove clutter has a wonderfully refreshing quality—we feel lighter and our thoughts are clearer.

Managing our own clutter is challenging enough. As a caregiver, you may face your loved one’s life-time of accumulations as I faced my parents’ forty-five years of possessions.

Likewise, as difficult as it is for some of us to let go of our possessions it becomes a traumatic experience for our brain impaired loved ones who struggle to hold on.

There are a lot of reasons why we hold onto things as the growing popularity of shows like A&E’s “Hoarders” and Discovery Health’s, “Help I’m a Hoarder!” prove.

When it comes to helping a brain-impaired adult clear through years of treasured belongings, the challenges are even greater.

Aprill Jones, a columnist at, asked about hoarding behavior among people with Alzheimer’s. Although, her article was published in 2009, I revisited this topic following an interview on hiding money with MSNBC, and have updated it via the TCV blog. (For the interview and Jones’ hoarding article, please see links at end of this article.)

Hoarding things and hiding money are related.

People fear not having enough so they save things/money for later. When “later” finally arrives, they no longer remember saving anything.

Aside from the typical reasons–e.g., compulsive tendencies, here’s an additional insight regarding hoarding behavior.

Hoarding is not that different than preparing for a disaster.

Store shelves are quickly emptied upon notice of impending disaster like an earthquake, flood, or fire. We stock up on water, duct tape, canned goods, batteries, cash in small denominations, and more.

Loved ones with dementing illnesses such as Alzheimer’s affecting cognition are particularly susceptible when they perceive a threat such as someone taking their things. They “prepare” as you and I would for a disaster, by stocking up.

My father kept rice in the kitchen cabinet for over a decade. By the time I discovered it in the dark recesses of a lower kitchen cabinet, an aged sticky plastic bag held together grains of pink rice. He objected vehemently to my tossing perfectly good food. He didn’t realize the rice was so old (my mother had placed it there while she was healthy enough to cook and move about their home). After she died of congestive heart failure, it remained in that cabinet, propagating some kind of fungus aided by Milwaukee’s humidity, giving it a pink color.

When cleaning our parents’ home, my sister, brother, and I came across thirty sewing shears. They were of superb quality, many having been crafted in Germany; yet, what were my mother’s plans for thirty scissors?

I’ve observed three reasons why the elderly and those with cognitive impairment (such as Alzheimer’s), hoard:

  1. depression-era habits are hard to let go.
  2. they forget where they placed an item. Depending on their cognitive ability, they may assume someone took it or moved it. To ensure they have enough, they hide items.
  3. they don’t “see” the item. Even though it’s right there and appears obvious to us, some brain impairing illnesses make it difficult to recognize the item even as they appear to be looking directly at it.

Even before my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he’d collect power tools. By the time we cleared the basement of my parents’ home, we found five Craftsman power drills; three were exactly the same.

Canadian, E.P. (Pat) Long. writes in, Growing Down, that her monther repeatedly asked for a glass of water even though there was a full glass of water right next to her bed on the night stand. Even when Pat pointed it out to her mom, the elder insisted on needing a glass of water.

While cleaning out my parents’ home, I found dozens of tin-foil containers from the Home Delivered Meals program. I also found toilet paper … lots of toilet paper! Do you know what happens to toilet paper that’s been stored too long? The moisture in the paper evaporates and corrugated cardboard feels softer.

In the next blog on Hoarding, we’ll focus on How to stop hoarding behavior.

Brenda Avadian, MA


For more information, please click on
How to Handle Hoarding
MSNBC Interview: Money hiders risk a wealth of woes

Updated March 2010 (Originally published July 2009)

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