Smith College psychologist Randy Frost, an expert on obsessive-compulsive disorder and a pioneer in the field of compulsive hoarding, estimates there are as many as 4 million hoarders nationwide and many more who fall on the spectrum of “problematic cluttering behavior.” Hoarding is a problem that worsens with age.
Hoarding, Frost said, is associated with a number of things including difficulty processing information, the inability to make decisions when confronted with a large amount of information and a failure to categorize things -- meaning you can’t see the commonality of objects and they instead all look unique to you.
Many mid-lifers first see the problem up close and personal when they go to clean out their parents' homes and discover that Mom and Dad have been living in rooms stacked to the ceiling with old newspapers, clothes, junk mail and garage sale "finds."
So how do you know that your parent is hoarding? Here are five signs you may be missing:
1. You aren't invited into their home -- ever.
Sometime in the past, family holidays were moved to the home of one of the adult children. And when you lunch with Mom, she picks the restaurant and meets you there. When you do pick up Dad, he is always waiting outside. "I like the fresh air," he says.
Hoarders are generally aware that what they are doing is wrong and so they don't want anyone to see. If you haven't been inside your parents' home in a few years, make a point of going inside.
Frost and other experts say that homes can reach the point they are so cluttered that even the hoarder can't move freely among his possessions -- and is still unwilling or unable to part with any of it.
2. They constantly go to garage sales and swap meets.
Dad likes tools, especially when he finds them priced inexpensively at garage sales. He's constantly buying power drills and hammers. He doesn't use them, mind you, but they were too good a deal to pass up. Invite Mom out on a day when you suspect she is planning to go to a garage sale. Will she skip the sales to hang out with you?
3. They put every scrap of paper in their purse or pocket.
Paper hoarders are just that: People who keep every piece of paper that they get their hands on, no matter how worthless.
A reader told us about entering her Dad's apartment when it came time to move him and discovering that he was a paper hoarder, something she had never even remotely suspected. His apartment was wall-to-wall stacks of old newspapers, magazines and piles and piles of those real estate flyers that agents put outside a house they've listed for sale. He would walk around the neighborhood and clean out the flyer boxes of their contents. He wasn't in the market to buy a home and had absolutely no use for the paper flyers, but still he had stacks of them and had been doing this every day for years.
Watch what your older parent does with receipts, movie ticket stubs, even old cereal boxes. When you travel, do they come home with a suitcase full of every bit of printed literature and brochures from the place they visited?
4. They can't part with anything -- ever.
When you mention that you are dropping off old clothes to the charity thrift store and ask your Mom if she has anything she wants you to take over for her, she never does. Hoarders struggle when it comes to discarding or parting with their possessions, regardless of their actual value.
The difference between hoarders and those who just live with clutter is the degree and quantity of their collected items, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Commonly hoarded items are newspapers, magazines, paper and plastic bags, cardboard boxes, photographs, household supplies, food, and clothing.
Hoarding is not the same as collecting. While collectors are proud of their possessions and are happy to display and talk about them, hoarders tend to be embarrassed and don't want others to see how they are living -- often with so much clutter that it interferes with their living space and yet they can't stop acquiring things.
5. They get angry or anxious at even just the suggestion that they throw something away.
People hoard because they believe that an item will be useful or valuable in the future. Or they feel it has sentimental value, is unique and irreplaceable, or too big a bargain to throw away, notes the ADAA. In the case of older people, they also may empower an object to be a reminder that helps jog their memory. Without it, they fear they won’t remember an important person or occasion.
But mostly, hoarders believe that they simply might need the item someday. Suggesting that the item should be discarded causes the hoarder severe anxiety. If you tell your elderly parent that perhaps he doesn't need so many Tupperware containers, he likely will get angry.