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

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 Answer

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.