How can I help stop my mother's hoarding and shopping problem?

2 answers | Last updated: Jun 26, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother has a hoarding problem to the point that her three bedroom house, including the basement is hardly passable. She finds pleasure in shopping and meeting the workers in the stores. She knows them by name and they call to tell her about various sales! She shops and shops and shops. She is doing well at 81 and living alone but has unopened bags and boxes every where, even on the bed she sleeps in. Most of the items are clothes. She even buys food and stacks it high...almost half way up to the ceiling...throughout the house. I am her only child and she becomes emotional if i even mention taking things out. From time to time she says that she is going to give some things away but never does. She will not allow any family members to visit but me. She functions well and I am afraid to force her away from her independent because she is very proud.

Expert Answers

As Founder and Director of Circles of Care, Ann Cason provides caregiving, consulting, and training services to individuals and public and private organizations involved in eldercare. She is the author of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders.

Thank you for writing.  Your mother's pride and her fear of lonelines may be the culprits that lead her to hoarding. How desolate she might feel at home compared to the liveliness of seeing  her friends at the different stores: the shopkeepers, cashiers, and clerks who love to see her coming and also call her to tell about sales. It is her world.It is where she experiences caring.

With shopping and hoarding,  there is the excitement of how much money you will save even though you might be going broke.  A dream world is created for a few hours of how beautiful the clothes will look, how good the food will taste, or how well fed you will be even if an earthquake or depression comes.  But after the hoarder comes home the treasures are only clutter.  It is a little like a remoseful alcoholic on the morning after.  But your mother is too proud to let you know about this.   Instead she keeps people out and stubbornly clings to the stash.

So many people have told me that they never could get their hoarding parents to give up their possessions. The attachment was too great, and the sadness too sharp without all the padding of things. Several have told me that the only thing that helped was when their loved one was forced forced to move to a new location, such as independent or assisted living.  Sometimes the move was instigated at the hands of the fire and health inspectors; sometimes at the insistence of the family.  After the trauma of losing  the possessions, the person was able to go on in a relatively normal way. 

In my experience, if an elder is forced to move it is helpful to help her find other ways to connect where she might find caring, or socialization, or where she could be a shining star instead of a hoarder.  Are there grandchildren she could take shopping to buy new clothes?  Would she go with you to lunch at a senior center where she might meet friends and get involved with activity?   Does she like to play bingo? Sometimes hoarders do like to play games or gamble abit. Whatever the activity, you will need to start her off.  She needs to be accepted and able to succeed.  Be a sleuth. Start by going for coffee once a week. Invite a friend.  With an only child and only mother it often helps to expand the circle.  

 Listen to her.

  What is it that she is dreaming of during her shopping?  Is it relationships or merchandise?   Would she be happier at a crafts class or a social? Would a book club interest her?  Don't be afraid to impinge on her pride.    Sometimes, pride has to crumble so that her basic dignity can shine forth.





Community Answers

Whitesheepofthefamily answered...

I completely empathize with your situation. The response you've gotten is a good one, but I'd just like to add a few thoughts of my own. I definitely believe that shopping, for my mother, is about the only socializing she gets anymore, aside from me, and her granddaughter, who comes over once a week so Mom and Dad can take her and her boyfriend and their child out to dinner. Many of their friends have passed away, and they have not been making new ones along the way. For my Dad, shopping gives him purpose and a sense of independence. I've tried to get them to go to the senior center for card games or bingo. I took my Dad to a couple of fitness classes for seniors. He didn't like them. My mother has always refused to participate in anything physical, so I don't even try with her. As for the other possibilities, Mom says she can't sit long enough to play cards. And she doesn't like going to independent living lunches because "they just gossip". (She doesn't realize she does the same.) But, they're definitely lonely. I've noticed that she tries to engage with nearly everyone at the grocery store who is near her. It's the "perfect" type of relationship, though, in some ways because she has a very limited repertoire of things to say (that she believes are highly witty), so it's handy that she can use them over and over because it's always different people. She has "bought" friendships with employees at the grocery store and Piccadilly because, even though I'm the one who carries her food tray to the table, she gives $4 to anyone who walks by to ask if she needs more water. And she gives $2 to the busboy. As for the hoarding, I clean out their refrigerators about once or twice a month. If they'd just eat the food they buy, they would need only one refrigerator, but they buy food and then forget about it. When I first arrived, I'd show them the bad food, so they could see why I was throwing it out and not accuse me of eating it. I showed my dad a sm container of chili that had 2" of mold on top. He yelled at me "that's my ice cream!! don't throw it out!!" (He has trouble with bright light,so they live in almost total darkness). Another time, he left a half-empty carton of OJ out for about six hours, then yelled at me for throwing it out. 16 years ago, he bought a very cheap vintage bicycle for the senior Olympics, which he does once a year, so he was only riding once a year. He hasn't ridden it at all in 10 years. The tires and seat were dry-rotted, and the chain rusted so I was surprised to be able to sell it. I gave him the money, but every once in a while, he says something absurd like "if I had my bicycle, you could ride it to go get all the stuff you left (two states away)". It may sound like onset of dementia, but logic has never been his forte'. Their bedroom floor is filled with piles of clothes, newspapers, piles of letters from Publishers Clearinghouse, unopened trinkets from the many charities she's given money to (Cheap flashlights, dreamcatchers, bumper stickers, fridge magnets, calendars) . Their dresser drawers have more junk in them than clothes, from electronics parts and old phone parts to old makeup and really old peppermints and tissues. They've added chairs and tv tray tables to have more room for sitting and eating, but those filled long ago with clothes, belts, socks, ties, batteries, makeup, mail, a stack of daily crossword puzzles from the last 320 days.....and so on. One of the worst things is that they are hypnotized by the television and spend nearly all of their waking hours watching it. It's both a way to ignore the need to organize and clean up, as well as a way to feel connected to the outside world (even if what they're watching are reruns from the 60's and 70's For my parents, offering opportunities to join other seniors in card games or anything else won't work. They have too many excuses not to do it, so I've mostly given up on finding anything they want to do besides watch tv, eat and sleep.

It seems to have boiled down to a waiting game. I want them to live productive and active lives. I don't want them to be lonely, but I can't force them to want that for themselves, or to seek it. I got my Dad to walk around the block with me a few times before he complained of it hurting his feet ("well, maybe if you'd get rid of those shoes you've been wearing since 1949, Dad"). Near the end of one walk, I told him that, at times it seems like he's given up on life, and I wish he wouldn't give up. He said nothing. When we got back inside, he went in the kitchen, grabbed a bag of popcorn and turned on the tv, crouching forward to within 10" of the screen to watch it.