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What causes hoarding in your parent and what to do about it

Clean living spaces are essential for keeping a safe area and reducing stress for both your parent and you as a caregiver.

A serious obstacle to a clean and orderly space is hoarding. According to research published in The College of Family Physicians of Canada, hoarding that requires treatment is more common than you might think. Hoarding behavior is characterized by an inability to throw away items even if they’re of little value, distress when parting with possessions, and collecting items that block and hinder living space.

Watching your mom or dad succumb to a hoarding disorder can be sad, uncomfortable, and anxiety-inducing. So what causes hoarding and how can you ease the hoarding tendencies in your parent’s behavior?

This guide will help you identify some potential underlying issues and also provide helpful steps you can take toward the treatment of hoarding so that you and your parent can work through this challenging situation.

Causes of Hoarding Behavior

The question “What causes hoarding?” cannot be addressed with a single answer. Rather, there are a host of potential triggers that might make your mom or dad feel as though they cannot discard possessions.

From obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression to memory loss and mental confusion, there are a number of reasons that can be at the root of your parent’s hoarding. Here are some potential causes for this behavior.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be behind your parent’s compulsive hoarding. They may be experiencing a dire need to keep things “just in case,” along with a deep fear of letting go of items they think they may need later.

Those who compulsively hoard also seem to have persistent difficulty in decision making. Hoarders seem to believe that many of their discardable belongings hold intrinsic value and may be useful in the near future.

Someone who is hoarding often freezes up and has difficulty coping when faced with decisions about what to throw away and what to keep regardless of the actual value of each item.

Your mom or dad may also exhibit problems categorizing their hoarded items, further adding to the mess that’s characteristic of compulsive hoarding.

Memory Loss and Mental Confusion

Misplacing things, holding on to items out of fear of forgetting them, and forgetting about items altogether are signs that hoarding may be caused from memory loss and mental confusion.

In a study with 133 patients who were diagnosed with dementia, researchers identified hoarding behavior in 22.6% of the group.

Memory loss and mental confusion are hallmarks of dementia that can disrupt daily life. If your parent has been diagnosed with dementia (and even if they haven’t), look out for these symptoms as it could be tied to your mom or dad’s hoarding behavior.

Depression and Anxiety

Have you considered that your parent may be hoarding items as a final measure to hold on to intimate memories and “good times”?

Your parent may be hoarding because they know their time of having a functioning memory is limited. Or perhaps it’s because they are feeling anxious about the future and nostalgic about the past and don’t want to let go.

The Journal of Clinical Psychology has identified depression and anxiety disorders as potential risk factors and underlying causes of compulsive hoarding. Depression and anxiety may lead to maladaptive behavior  patterns that make it difficult to function in everyday situations. In this case, it could be holding onto items and creating clutter that disrupts everyday life.

What to Do If Your Parent Is Hoarding

Elderly gentleman browsing books

Now that you have a better idea of what may be at the root of your parent’s hoarding, it’s time to have an honest look at what you can do to help. With patience, consistency, and professional medical advice, you may start to see improvement.

Communicate Clearly and Compassionately

Depending on the level of your parent’s cognitive function, they may not be completely aware of their hoarding tendencies. It’s essential to communicate your concerns with them in a loving and compassionate way. Here’s how to do so.

  1. Use positive language. When approaching your mom or dad about their hoarding behavior, avoid negative language and emotions. Also, keep the focus on practical reasons and solutions for decluttering. Here is an example of an appropriate way to bring up the issue: “Hey Dad, I’ve noticed that you’re holding onto many things that you haven’t been using anymore. Do you feel that cleaning a bit of this stuff could help clear up your living space and make things easier to get around? How about we tidy up a bit to help make it easier for you to find the things you need?” Notice how the tone is understanding and proactive rather than judgmental and hostile.
  2. Practice patience. Chances are, your parent isn’t ready to change all at once. They may not respond the way you want or expect them to, even if your communication is positive. The key is to be consistent and patient in your endeavor to help them change. This may look like offering kind, consistent advice on how to keep things clean or just bringing up the issue on a regular basis.
  3. Speak with other family members and loved ones about the issue. Make sure your siblings and other close family are on board with what your parent is going through as well as your attempts to help correct their hoarding. They may be able to help your mom or dad realize that they don’t need to hold onto each and every item.

Seek Professional Help

As a caregiver, remain open to the idea of seeking help from mental health professionals. It may be a necessary step depending on the severity of your parent’s hoarding and whether or not they exhibit significant distress when you try to help.

Psychiatrists will be able to help monitor depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (the International OCD Foundation is a good resource), and even dementia symptoms associated with your parent’s hoarding. They may also offer medications, therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or both.

Keep in mind that seeking the help of a mental health professional or support groups will require the cooperation of your parent, so you’ll want to proceed with caution, respect, and love.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

What causes hoarding? Mindfulness might be able to help

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of intervention aimed at resolving mental health and personality disorders. Although CBT is renowned for treating anxiety and depression, it has been shown to improve cases of compulsive hoarding as well.

CBT involves sets of exercises aimed at resolving ineffective patterns of thinking (some of which may be causing your parent’s hoarding).

Please keep in mind that if your parent has dementia, adopting CBT may not be the most effective or realistic option, even if they are in the earliest stages of this disease.

That said, here are some examples of cognitive-behavioral modes of therapy.

  • Cognitive restructuring: Cognitive restructuring involves reshaping the patient’s thought process in order to overcome negative thinking patterns. This may involve speaking with a therapist about preconceived ideas about the world and creating more efficient modes of reasoning.
  • Exposure Therapy: This can be an uncomfortable form of therapy and should therefore be monitored by a professional. It can also be very effective. It’s a straightforward form of treatment — expose your parent to what they fear most (in increments as necessary). In the case of hoarding, that fear could be getting rid of things that they no longer use or need. A therapist can create a program where your parent throws things away little by little. The idea is to eventually make getting rid of things seem effortless.
  • Mindfulness: A mindfulness practice can help your parent gradually reduce their hoarding tendencies. Simple meditation can help them detach from anxiety, and in turn, the objects they think they need. There are numerous online resources that teach meditation, including YouTube videos, blog posts, and even classes. Also, many psychologists are well-versed in meditation and can help provide the resources you and your parent need.

Hope for You and Your Parent

When it comes to what causes hoarding, remember that your parent may be dealing with a number of different issues including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, a traumatic life event, or a combination of these.

The key is to address the situation, take steps to resolve the problem, and be there for them in a way that’s loving, helpful, and patient.

Through familial intervention, effective communication, and help from a specialist, you can get to the root of the problem and your parent can begin to declutter their lives and enjoy greater freedom.

Do you have a parent who’s exhibiting signs of hoarding? Do you feel that their hoarding may be induced by some of these causes? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.

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