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Parents drowning in a sea of clutter

A reader worries about the comfort and safety of her hoarder parents.

QUESTION:

When does hoarding become pathological? My parents are filling their house and shed to capacity. Every surface is covered. Desks and spare beds are buried under piles of papers. I suggested they box everything up. If they didn’t need to open the boxes for six months, throw them away. I offered to hire a skip. I could pay two burly men to hurl the junk in. All offers were refused. I worry about their comfort and safety. It is difficult to live with so much stuff. It’s also embarrassing. They rarely have visitors.

ANSWER:

Many people hoard, from keeping useless things “just in case “, to stockpiling junk mail. The latter can be a sign of mental illness. A GP or mental health professional is best placed to advise on this.

Some older people like things where they can see them. This offers a sense of security.

It is important to ensure their home is not a fire hazard and fire alarms are working. Also walkways need to be clear to reduce trip hazards.

If change is to occur, a different approach is needed. Find the value in storing. Using manila folders and boxes introduces a simple filing system. The contents of these should be seen clearly, written in texta.

Cupboards can be tided. Let one parent do this at leisure. Not throwing away, just organising in piles. Place a list of cupboards’ contents behind the door with the shelf number. Filled boxes and folders can be stored, on top of each other (but well labelled).

Your encouragement and practical help is essential, but remove any sense of urgency and leave one or other parent to decide what goes where. Give suggestions of tasks they can do, and give praise.

If your parents are happy in their environment, you could decide to ignore it. If it really distresses you could take them out or see them at your home.

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