July 15. 2018 10:03PM

At 76, she's overcoming a long history of hoarding

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader


Candace, 76, lives alone in the house she designed 50 years ago. Gradually, enthusiastically, and sometimes uncontrollably, she accumulated bargains discovered at thrift stores — mostly inexpensive clothes too good to pass up, and presents she thought would be perfect for people in her life.

But she seldom got around to cutting the tags off, or giving away the items. The ritual of acquiring and stockpiling took on a life of its own, until her home became impossible to navigate, her oven turned into a storage place, and her kitchen became unusable, beset by growing stacks of junk mail, clothes, and saved food.

“I knew I was a hoarder,” says Candace, who asked that her real name not be used because she is sensitive to the stigma. “It’s almost like things began to fill the gap in my life” she said, noting her husband died 36 years ago, when she was 40 and he was 46, “I’m capable of doing what I need to do, But I just don’t do it. Things are like people in the house.”

Candace’s predicament is not unusual for seniors who struggle with hoarding, a mental illness that can start between age 13 and 20, and can build over years, reaching cataclysmic proportions later in life.

The causes are varied, often rooted in trauma or loss, and linked to conditions as disparate as depression and dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Vulnerable seniors are especially at risk because they are more likely to experience grief and multiple losses as they grow old.

Expert: They can’t let go

There are no statistics or estimates of how many senior Americans currently struggle with hoarding, but their numbers are expected to rise as more aging baby boomers live at home in their advanced years, including in the Granite State.

Hoarders don’t just accumulate items that others deem worthless, worn-out, or useless. “We have cases where homes are filled with brand new clothes with the tags still on them” and unopened boxes of small appliances,” said Randy Frost, a nationally recognized expert on hoarding said in a 2014 interview on sparefoot.com.

Frost, co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things” and the “Buried in Treasures” workbook, said hoarders aren’t able to let go of anything; compulsive buying and acquiring compounds the problem for roughly 85-90 percent. That includes obsessively acquiring free things — Dumpster-diving, scouring the town dump, or compulsively driving around on trash day to pick through things neighbors have put out.

“It doesn’t really matter how much stuff people have, or how many storage units they have for their stuff — it’s really whether all that stuff interferes with their ability to function,” says Frost. “We’ve known folks who have multiple storage units but don’t have enough money to have a place to live, so they’re essentially homeless, even though they’re paying for their belongings.”

On the road to recovery

Candace is on the way to recovery. She stays active and stimulated with swimming and reading, and takes pride in the changes she’s making to improve her life. Through a senior center in nearby Massachusetts, she’s found a hoarding counselor to come to her home to help her divest and organize.

A mental health counselor through REAP at Seacoast Mental Health connects her with services and addresses initial hurdles. She’s finding encouragement and strategies by reading the “Buried in Treasures” workbook. Her daughter and niece come to help clean, bag items for charity, and create pathways through the house, which is flanked by towers of clothes and clutter.

The Bureau of Adult and Elderly Services has paid for emergency repairs of her non-working plumbing.

Most promising is Candace’s attitude, and willingness to change and get help. Insight, or the ability to recognize one’s problem, is essential to combatting hoarding, mental health experts say; the desire for change has to come from within. The condition is never solved by carting away someone’s clutter in one dramatic attempt — sorting and purging needs to be directed by the person who has accumulated the items over a long time.

“I love my house, but things are in disrepair. Somehow I collect clothes and presents for people as I see them. I don’t spend too much money and it gets me out and around people. The bad side is that I bring it home. The downside is there’s multitudes of different shoes and clothes and I feel bad when I see it. I don’t invite people into my house. It’s something like being an alcoholic — you don’t tell anyone. But when you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, I guess you do something about it.”

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 rbaker@unionleader.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.