EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 7, 2013

Shopaholic mom tells kids to mind their own business

Rosanne DiStefano
Elder Q&A

---- — Q: My mother is constantly shopping and buys things she doesn’t really need. Her closets are overflowing and I doubt she even knows what she has anymore. The basement is filled with containers of clothes as well. She is extremely generous to family and friends so this is not always just about what she wants. Whenever I have mentioned her shopping habits she tells me she finds enjoyment in this activity and can afford her shopping sprees so I should mind my own business. Could she be reaching the hoarding status?

A: Without meeting your mother and viewing the home environment it is impossible to definitively “label” her behavior. It sounds more like a tendency to compulsive shopping than actual hoarding. It appears she can afford her outings and they fulfill a personal need she has. People often confuse collecting with compulsive hoarding, the first may not present any real threats to the person’s well-being while the second creates numerous problems. The act of hoarding can result in a person’s deterioration in physical health, result in safety and health code violations, as well as threatening their emotional, social and psychological well being.

Hoarding is a complex issue and is more common than the general public would think. In an attempt to define this issue there are 3 components typically present 1) failure to discard a large number of items which are useless or limited in value, 2) living spaces are cluttered to the point the intended use is non-existent 3) there is an impairment in functioning as a result of the hoarding. Individuals have irrational emotional attachments to items and are often convinced they will be needed at some time in the future. Hoarders struggle with organization or making any decisions about throwing anything away. It is estimated 15 million Americans have fallen into this pattern of behavior. In Massachusetts it is one of the leading causes of eviction from housing which sadly leads to an increase in homelessness.

Along with the tendency to hoard a high percentage of individuals have underlying mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and obsessive/compulsive disorder. Friends, neighbors and family members are typically more concerned about the problem than the actual hoarder. Counseling and establishing trust between the hoarder and mental health professional is critical for successful intervention. Forcing the person to clean and remove their accumulated possessions will most likely only result in repeat behavior. It is absolutely necessary to get active participation from the hoarder in clearing their environment. The person needs to be part of setting an action plan and setting achievable goals. This is not something that happens overnight.

If you are concerned someone you know could possibly be deemed a hoarder assistance is available at Elder Services. These are questions to ask to help you identify a person in need of assistance. Are they able to get out of the house, are pathways accessible or are piles of rubbish blocking entrances? Are they able to use the bathroom to do personal care or is it filled with piles of trash or belongings? Does a fire hazard exist putting them at risk? A new guide is also available on line to provide information on this issue at http://forprofessionals.800ageinfo.com/2013/03/care-guide-for-hoarding.html.

Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries and comments from our readers. Direct correspondence to ro@esmv.org or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, 360 Merrimack Street B#5, Lawrence, MA 01843. Rosanne DiStefano is the Executive Director of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc.