I know a woman who collected things – her entire basement was filled with things. Ceiling to floor with a small pathway through was the only way to navigate her basement. The front porch was full of newspapers. Ceiling to floor with no place to sit. This caused a lot of angst for her family, and really limited her full enjoyment of her living space.
This is an obvious case of hoarding. But what to do and how to handle it?
Driven by Anxiety
Hoarding can be a behaviour that occurs with some people with dementia. There are many reasons that may be causing the individual to hoard. One reason is because the individual is feeling anxious.
They may have gone through difficult times, like those that occurred for many who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Now when the memories of those days are strongest, the drive to survive that they felt during that time can also come to the fore. And so they hoard objects, just in case they will need them later. They have lost the ability to think rationally about needs and their emotional anxiety becomes the driving force.
To help them overcome this, provide a safe and predictable environment for them. This can reduce the anxiety that leads to hoarding. Make sure there is routine, and things are kept in the same place. Signs on doors or cupboards may be helpful to remind them where things are. As well, they may need reassurance that they will be taken care of. You may need to give this reassurance often. Speak to them in a calm tone and understand that their anxiety does not come from a rational place.
Once a Collector, Always a Collector
Collecting objects can also provide a feeling of security.
They may have been collectors in their youth and got a lot of enjoyment out of their collections. Now this earlier, habitual behaviour takes over – and it feels like a comfortable way of operating. The act of collecting is attached to earlier feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction.
Respect these feelings and try and support them in a positive way. If their collection is not dangerous, try and find a way to store it so that it is not a tripping hazard.
Isolation Can Drive Hoarding
If they were not collectors in the past, they may be feeling isolated. Isolation limits interactions for the individual and they focus on the thing that they are hoarding. This can be a very unhealthy aspect of hoarding, where their interactions focus on things instead of people.
Try and provide opportunities for interaction with others. Get them involved in a program outside of their room or home. Pick a program that encourages or provides opportunities for socialization.
Loss of Memory
Finally, their loss of memory may cause frustration and panic. Thus, they hold onto objects that help them remember. The experience of memory loss may make them feel quite desperate, and so objects that are associated with certain memories or times in their life may become even more important to them. They may see in those objects a way to stave off memory loss.
Hoarding driven by this behaviour is the most difficult to deal with. You can’t reverse the memory loss in the ways that you can remove isolation or anxiety. It is important to provide a lot of understanding and support for an individual in this situation and look for ways to build self-confidence. Helping them to focus on activities that they can still do can show them that they still have strengths.
Deal with their hoarding with a calm voice. You may find it frustrating to deal with all the material that has accumulated, but rational arguments will not necessarily lead to agreement. This behaviour is really tied to emotions and uncertainty. So, focus on responding to the emotions.
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.
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