Silver Tales


Senior Hoarding, The Caregiver, and Emotions

As a caregiver, have you ever felt overwhelmed by the clutter that you find in homes...well try to imagine how it makes the person you are caring for feel. #hoarding #clutter #clean #cleaning #care #teamwork

Senior hoarding is a common issue, but what usually isn’t considered or discussed are all of the emotions that come along with trying to change or alter the environment that it has created. I have found that there are usually two points of view to acknowledge and consider when dealing with senior hoarding issues. There is the caregiver’s point of view and then there is the seniors’ point of view. And although both sides make very powerful cases as to ‘why or why not' downsize, shouldn’t the bottom line be the safety for your loved ones? Although, most of us would respond with a quick YES! Let's take a moment to discuss ways to make the process a little less stressful for both parties.

From the elderly’s point of view the frustration, embarrassment, and depression that comes with hoarding issues can create a range of emotions and emotional outbursts. When forced to choose between safety and sentimentality, seniors are less concerned with safety. And you've got to remember that in their minds they have taken care of themselves for longer than you have. Heck, they've probably taken care of you, if you are a child. So it's usually the memories and the control of their lives that they are trying to hold on to. As seniors get older, dementia-related issues may come up and this can make it very difficult to deal with when discussing hoarding issues. This could be the senior's unintentional accumulation of items that may have been misplaced previously (an attempt to re-buy the same items over and over again) or part of a more serious situation. For seniors that may not have issues with dementia but still find themselves hoarding things, caregivers should be concerned about their lack of socialization and isolation, which is also common with hoarders and try to make an attempt to strengthen trust in the relationship, by investing either your time or the compassionate time of a companion. 

For the caregiver, the primary issue should be safety. And from the caregiver's point of view, this could feel like a no-win situation, because of the emotions of the senior. Especially when the help offered is strongly refused, but the living conditions must be improved for hygienic and sustainability purposes. The caregiver considers questions like… “Are the fire exits or windows being blocked? Is the clutter creating a fall risk? Has the lack of organization caused the senior to neglect their hygiene?” Dealing with a situation like this creates an opportunity for the caregiver to be both creative and caring in order to create a better and more livable situation for the senior. Recently when faced with a similar situation, my staff and I tried different techniques and found that some worked better than others, so I would like to share what we learned… ‘The Unconditional Care Way.’

  • Questioning - Phrase or ask questions in a way that makes the seniors feel that they are making the decision as to what to keep, where to put it (to create a safer environment), what should be donated, and/or where it should be donated.
  • Phrasing/Wording - this may seem like a little thing but it can make a very BIG difference in success or failure when dealing with seniors...especially strong-willed seniors. Try to avoid using words that could cause them embarrassment and cause the senior to go on the defensive. So you may want to stay away from the work 'hoarding' or 'mess' or 'junk' or 'nasty' or 'dirty'. Unless the senior is choosing to use those words...any of those words or just any word that you know will set your loved one off...remove it from your vocabulary, quickly. Try to use words that create a partnership, like downsizing. I have found that this simple word takes senior creates an openness in seniors because now you are not dictating or telling are suggesting. I will provide more info regarding this in the next bullet point.
  • Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion - I have found that inclusion is the key to a successful transition for downsizing. Never, ever talk to a senior like they are a toddler, never talk down to a senior citizen like their opinion doesn't matter, and always actively listen to what they say and watch their body language! As a caregiver, you should never be making the decisions for them unless they absolutely can not participate in the transition (ie. mid to late-stage dementia). You will definitely catch more flies with honey than with salty demeaning language and non-caring attitude. Caregivers should always use the word we and us to build trust with the senior as well. So here is a sample of a great conversation starter and it will also help you gauge where the senior is emotional regarding change...

"Hey Mrs. Doe, you know I was thinking last night after I left about the new patio furniture you wanted for the deck and new kitchen table for the dining room and I think that it's a great idea. I was also thinking about how we could arrange things to make it fit, because you know it's gonna be a little bit of a challenge to get it in the house, so I have an idea that I want to run past you, but please tell me what you think (smile and don't be afraid to hold the seniors trust, show your genuine compassion, and concern). And I also want to give your son/daughter a call to talk with them, but I really just want to know what your thoughts are first. So, I was thinking that we both already know that we would have to move a lot of things just to get the table in the house and since we are already going to be moving things, I was wondering if you would help me downsize things a little? If we could go through everything together and maybe if you see some things that you know you aren't going to use we can put them in a separate pile. You know every day I go by the Goodwill store and I see so many cars there. So if you have anything that we could share (notice I didn't say give away) with someone else that doesn't have as much, I would be more than happy to either take it myself or arrange for a pick-up once we are done."

  • Make suggestions - make the senior feel like they are in control of the downsizing process. For example: to move a box onto the floor of a closet, get confirmation from the senior, and then ask them to take a look at your suggestion to see if they are comfortable with the decision.
  • Trust – it’s important that before any changes can occur, you must have a trusting relationship with the senior and take it one step at a time…don’t try to declutter everything all at once. And for goodness sake, caregivers, yes you may be getting paid for being there, but you can only build trust by 1- doing what you were assigned to do; 2- please do not be sitting around watching the clock...if all tasks have been completed then have a conversation with the senior, ask them what they would like to do today...don't be an employee to the senior...try to be a friend; and 3- go the extra mile for the senior, it's that little bit extra that counts. People find value not in what they are paying you to do...they find value in the quality and loving unexpected things that you do.
  • Don't be afraid to call in for backup – if the caregiver, family, or senior feels that the situation is more than they can handle, don’t hesitate to ask the family if it would be ok to call in a professional organizing team. Find one that provides a free consultation and specializes in working with seniors. This will help ease frustration and irritation in the process. 
  • Pile it up – create three piles: one pile for things to keep, another to donate, and a throwaway pile.
  • Share the responsibility – for seniors that are able to do some tasks, allow them to help out by giving them 'homework' to do after you have gone. For example, you might create the pile of dirty clothes but let them know that washing them is part of their homework. Most seniors will want to help & this will also give you an idea of where they are in the engagement part of the process. For example, if you ask a senior to wash their clothes as part of their homework, but when you come back and it’s not done, ask questions (watch your tone and presentation though). “I noticed that the clothes weren’t washed, can we talk about it? Is there a specific reason that I may not know about?" This is important because it opens up the door for conversation and information. There could have been a traumatic event (ie. Being sexually assaulted in a laundry room) that may create memories that amplify the fear that they are already experiencing. But it could also be that they are having some hesitation with the process and then you can re-visit why this needs to be done, encourage, and deal with their immediate emotional needs. (Don’t forget to call in the pro’s if needed: family, friends, and there are geriatric counselor and psychiatrists that can help make progress in this area).
  • Most important step – always show compassion and kindness! The emotional embarrassment of the situation and much of the frustration experienced can be averted if the caregiver pays attention to their tone of voice, the presentation of questions, showing that they value the relationship, and have plenty of patience. It’s important to not appear to be in a rush or a hurry with seniors. This is something that is unappreciated by anyone, but especially seniors. Make sure your tone isn’t condescending or that you are speaking to the senior as if they are a child. Respect them for the life they have lived, the lives that they have either raised or touched and the many seeds that they have sown along the way. Not only do they still add value to this world, but understand that they add value to your life.

To learn more and/or to find professional help please check out the following links.


To download the clutter-hoarding scale (free):

To find a professional organizer or a productivity consultant: or give us a call (919) 527-4042 for a free consultation

To learn more about hoarding:

One of the most important things to understand is that cleaning a room or a home does not mean that the problem is completely solved. If the root issue that caused the hoarding is not addressed then it will only be a matter of time before things revert back to the previous conditions. So consistent and regular visits, maintaining a strong relationship, and regular encouragement and communication is important.

Unconditional Care Senior Services, LLC

Raleigh, NC

(919) 527-4042


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