The eldest child of parents who lived through the Great Depression, Rhonda absorbed values of thrift — along with habits that inevitably led to her stockpiling a pirate’s bounty of clutter, including buttons, zippers, old clothes, scraps of fabric, catalogs, greeting cards, college papers and anything that could be repaired or re-used.
“‘Waste not, want not. Take care of what you have, and you’ll never do without. Don’t throw things away because you never know when you’ll need them,’” Rhonda says. “It’s what I learned growing up.”
At 69, she found herself awash in stuff she never had the time or energy to sort — or any idea of where to start, until a friend suggested they both join a program called “Buried in Treasures” offered through the Aging Resource Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. Based on the work of Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, a nationally recognized hoarding expert, and his colleagues, the course is poised to become a model for workshops offered through hospitals and senior centers throughout the Granite State as graduates train to lead workshops in their communities.
Hoarding, the compulsive accumulation and inability to get rid of things, including items considered worthless by others, is a mental illness affecting at least 2 to 6 percent of the world’s population, including seniors. The numbers are likely higher because hoarding usually goes unreported until it becomes a crisis, mental health experts say.
Onset typically occurs between ages 13 and 20, and worsens with time as hoarders experience trauma and loss. Depression and anxiety put seniors at risk; dementia can bring on the condition, and can amplify cluttering behavior into hoarding as sufferers increasingly struggle with memory, focus, planning, organization, and activities of daily life.
In contrast, cluttering, or amassing objects that crowd living spaces, is a much more fluid and common behavior, that beleaguers many seniors who acquire or inherit things over decades, and find themselves overwhelmed. Both can lead to untenable living conditions as bills, junk mail and papers mound up kitchen counters, saved objects turn spare rooms into storage, and bags and boxes cramp living spaces and hallways or make it a struggle to move around.
For many seniors, “It just takes time. They’ve had a lifetime to fill up a place to the point of becoming a crisis,” says Lora Gerard, program director for the Northern New England Geriatric Education Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.
The good news is that both conditions respond to group therapy, empathy, structured guidance and behavior modification techniques, provided an individual has insight and motivation to change, according to mental and public health workers.
The roots of hoarding
This spring, the “Buried in Treasures” workshop consisted of retirees, mostly age 60 and older, who found help, direction, comfort, and renewed desire to take control of themselves, their possessions and their environments.
“Buried in Treasures” helps participants understand the roots of hoarding, improve their organizing and decision-making skills, create living spaces they can use, find things they’ve been looking for, cut back on clutter and reduce acquiring — including thrift-store hopping and compulsive bargain-hunting — and enjoy other activities instead.
The program uses cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy to help them change ingrained behavior “instead of talking about how you feel about your stuff,” Gerard says. “For instance, if there’s a thrift store you like, you practice driving by, then walking by without going in, then going into the store, picking up things and putting them down without buying anything — working up to saying no and changing how you behave.”
A key to success is the group approach to a problem that often increases isolation. “There’s often a very deep shame. People think, ‘How did I get this way? They fear having a moral failing, or being perceived as dirty or lazy. It’s a relief to talk to someone with similar or identical experiences,” Gerard says.
Because of the stigma, workshop members agreed to use the word cluttering instead of hoarding.
“No one is a filthy, dirty hoarder,” says Rhonda, who lives north of New London and requested that her real name not be used. “What we’re striving for is to make our homes safe, more livable, and more comfortable. We often don’t realize we have such strong emotional ties to our possessions. You have to develop an understanding and recognize you have a problem and do something. You begin to understand how it happens, and learn to strategize,” organize, build up time slots to sort through possessions, and work on small spaces.
“It’s making conscious decisions and incremental changes,” Rhonda says. “If you start working on the whole picture, it can be very overwhelming. The most difficult items are things that mean something special, or that someone special has given you.
“One big thing a lot of people have is clothing. I went up in my attic and saw my junior prom dress. I just had a great-granddaughter I might give that to. My sisters went home with one of nana’s hats that our mother had saved for us,” she says. “One sister is displaying hers on her living room wall, in a shadow box with a photo of our grandmother. Whether you give something away or donate it to charity, parting with things that are useful to others makes you feel better about yourself.”
Decluttering requires a commitment of time, Rhonda said. “Now my emotional wellbeing has improved. I’m feeling freer, I’ve lost weight and gained strength. My husband has noticed the difference, and it’s helping him as well. We’re becoming more mindful. It makes him want to put his stuff away more too. I think we both have always had this issue.”
Because of the clutter in her Danbury home, a woman died “because her husband and the fire department couldn’t get back to her. It makes you think of what could be if you don’t get a handle on it. There can be very tragic circumstances.”
For additional information, Gerard recommends the “Buried in Treasures” workbook, which can be ordered through bookstores and Amazon.com, and “Digging Out” by Michael Tompkins, which is helpful for family members and friends. Guidance is available online from Mutual Support Consulting at mutual-support.com. To register for the next “Buried in Treasures” workshop in Lebanon starting September, call the Aging Resource Center at 603-653-3460, email AgingCenter@Hitchcock.org, or register online at http://www.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/aging_resource_center/eventdetail/46717738012
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at email@example.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.