Drowning in 'Stuff'

Lone elderly tend to hoard possessions, says new study

MONDAY, Sept. 24, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Old women who are poor, live alone and have never been married tend to pile their houses so deep in clutter that some cannot even get to their bathtubs, says a new study.

The researchers aren't sure whether the same holds true for men, says study co-author Gail Steketee, a psychologist with Boston University's School of Social Work. Women live longer, meaning there are fewer older men to study; nearly 75 percent of the people available for the study were women. Steketee says women ask for help more than men, and that also may affect the numbers. The findings are in the August issue of Health and Social Work.

The fact that the people with the worst hoarding problems were women who were never married may reflect a greater attachment to possessions because they don't have a partner, the authors suggest.

Irene Deitch, a psychologist specializing in aging and a professor of psychology at City University of New York in Staten Island, says older people who hoard may just be trying to hold onto "some aspect of reality."

Hoarding is a disorder marked by a large accumulation of possessions that limits use of living areas.

Nearly all of the 62 people studied -- more than 90 percent -- had severe clutter in their living and dining rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Hallways, bathrooms and stairwells also were often blocked by paper, containers, clothing, food, books and garbage. Several people had to sleep on a couch or chair because their beds were covered with possessions; 42 percent couldn't gain access to their bathtubs. The subjects were aged 65 to 92.

"Their sense of safety or security may come from surrounding themselves with familiar objects," Deitch says.

Deitch says people holding on to objects don't consider them clutter. They have significance and make people feel comfortable, she says.

All but one study participant had at least a moderate degree of difficulty moving around; nearly 80 percent had substantial to severe trouble navigating. Some people had to climb over their possessions -- in some cases piled knee-high -- to get from one place to another.

The pile-up of belongings also presents dangers that include fire hazards, an increased risk of falling and unsanitary conditions.

Based on interviews with social-service providers for elderly clients in the Boston area, most clients lived in apartments in the city and had incomes between $10,000 and $40,000; most were in the lowest income bracket.

The providers estimated that 44 percent of their clients had a mental disorder, and they suspected a disorder in another 33 percent, primarily depression. The providers, however, weren't trained clinicians.

What To Do

Researchers say the elderly clients had very little insight into their problem. Having someone else clean their homes rarely worked, leading the authors to suggest that treatment include help with organizing and decision making, an examination of emotional attachment and therapy that modifies some faulty beliefs.

Steketee says agencies that serve older people will have to intervene. Some cities have started task forces in which health, social service, public safety and housing officials formulate plans to deal with hoarding complaints.

For more information on issues of interest to the elderly population and agencies providing services, see AARP and the Administration on Aging.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gail Steketee, Ph.D., Boston University School of Social Work, and Irene Deitch, Ph.D., City University of New York in Staten Island; August 2001 Health and Social Work
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