Pack Rat or Hoarder: If, How, and When to Address the Mess in Mom and Dad’s House

“I like my stuff.’”

That’s the dead end you run into every time you bring up the state of organization in your parent’s home. You try to broach the subject… tactfully.

“You know, Mom, it’s getting tough to move around in the guest room with all this stuff in there.”

“Dad, do you want me to help you clear out some stuff so you have more space?”

“You don’t have a hard time finding what you need with all this stuff in the closet, Mom?”

It may happen right away or it may happen ten minutes into the conversation: the ironwrought gate clangs down. So you drop the conversation topic, for now. But the accumulation is still bothering – and concerning – you. What can you do to get through?

The Right to be a Pack Rat?

In order to determine the best way to approach your parent, you first need to ask yourself the following question:

Why does your parent’s perpetual mess stress you out so much?

Because the experience of caring for an aging parent is chaotic as it is – and if you have control over the physical environment (unlike medical events, for example), it might put some semblance of order and structure into your life?

Because you’re concerned the mess is posing a physical danger to your parent – that they will trip and fall over the clutter, or cause a fire?

Because you’re a neat person by nature and spending time in messy environments makes you feel off-balance or uncomfortable?

Because you’re worried about what kind of example your parent is setting for your kids?

Because your parents can’t find items they truly need when they need them?

Because if your parent doesn’t deal with it now, the burden of clearing out the mess will eventually fall on you?

All of those reactions are valid reasons for feeling stressed. However, not all of those reactions are valid reasons for doing something about the mess.

Remember your kid’s messy room? The room that to you looked like a total wreck, but to your child felt “homey.” Were you worried about your child?

Probably not.

Did you think he was going to harm himself or others by having such a disorganized room?

Unlikely.

When it comes to your child and your home, your emotional reaction IS a decisive factor. If a situation bothers you or stresses you – even if it’s not an objective “problem” – you can and often should do something about it.

But this is your parent. Not your child. And this mess is in your parent’s home. Not in yours.

You have every right to your emotions.But if the mess isn’t causing objective harm or danger, your parent also has every right… to have a home the way she wants.

The Danger Zone

Sometimes clutter goes beyond annoying and starts to become dangerous.

David, one of our recent clients, told us that the mess in his mother’s home has reached the point where his wife refuses to accompany him on visits to his mother. Aside from the discomfort of socializing in a mess, open bottles of medications as well as towering piles of decades-worth of mail have created a setting that is hazardous to the couple’s small children. David’s mother’s hoarding habit has reached a point of cutting her off from those closest to her. She can no longer have her grandchildren in her home.

Even more of a problem is when the clutter poses a safety threat to the senior herself:

  • scattered obstacles that increase the risk of falls
  • fire hazards
  • unsanitary living conditions
  • obstruction of entrances and hallways to the point where emergency services would have a hard time getting in or maneuvering

If the mess in your parent’s home has hit the level of “clear and present danger,” you need to broach the topic with them and discuss how to make the living environment safer.

It’s not simple; if the clutter situation developed to this extent, there are probably multiple emotional issues at play that are going to make it hard for your parent to let go.

To gain a deeper understanding of the issues and the process, we turned to Rebekah Saltzman of Balagan Be Gone in Israel to explain what happens when a personal organizer steps in to such a circumstance. She has managed enough of these sensitive situations that she will even be speaking at ESRA of Haifa on November 5, specifically on the subject of downsizing for older people.

Rebekah explains succinctly that one cannot organize clutter. Every item must have a home. To reach a point of sane and safe order, many items will need to be re-homed. This downsizing creates stress. Dad might insist that an item will come in handy one day. He spent money on it; he might find a place for it. Reframing the situation will take time.

Rebekah offers a persuasive way to reframe: explain that just as when one hires a personal trainer, the trainer doesn’t exercise for you, likewise an organizer is there to keep you accountable and help maximize your time, but the decisions still rest with you. Emphasizing this approach while trying to earn cooperation from Mom may help gain her trust in the process.

After 10+ years of experience in decluttering and organizing homes, Rebekah suggests taking the approach of “You can’t take it with you,” explaining to your parent that making these decisions after a parent’s passing is a huge emotional burden to place on the surviving children. Of course the kids want to look after and treasure the items that truly mattered to their parent, but if all the stuff is mixed up, how will significance be assigned? The senior, when he or she goes through this process him or herself, retains the power to decide what stays and what goes. She has earned these things and deserves to keep them, but you need help determining what carries significance.

According to Rebekah, the key is to listen to your parent. When he says, “I can’t get rid of it,” find out why. What is holding him back? Could he return to it in a week? Must he keep it? Is there a home for it?

Rebekah explains that she doesn’t make these decisions – she helps her clients clarify why they’re holding on to so many possessions. Is the item a necessity? Could he purchase it again? Is it sentimental? Asking these questions can help the client reframe the situation in more realistic terms.

Once you’ve had these conversations, says Rebekah, back away. This is as much as you, the child involved, can do.

Mission: Organization

Other strategies that may help your parent overcome the initial resistance to downsizing include:

Suggest renovations – Legitimately, for most older people to remain in their own homes, renovations are a necessity. You may suggest making a bathroom walker- or wheelchair-accessible, remodeling the kitchen or whatever else may make your parent’s eyes light up in anticipation of better tomorrows. That may be enough of an impetus to get things cleaned up in order for the work to begin.

Storage facility options – If loss of potentially precious possessions is what is disturbing your parent, offer to pack everything into a storage facility. Do your research ahead of time so you’ll have answers. What will this cost? How will it work? Sometimes, just having the reassurance that “all is not lost” and that the items can be gone through at a later point in time is enough to bring comfort and strength, enabling a parent to begin to move forward.

Clinging to Clutter

While no pile of clutter is too deep for a professional organizer, sometimes the involved psychological issues are too deep.

Rebekah shared the following scenario:

Rebekah met Esther, an older, single woman, in her three-bedroom apartment. Esther badly wanted her sister, Sadie, to come visit. Sadie, however, wanted nothing to do with the mess created by Esther’s clutter, and refused to come until Esther’s flat was deemed safe and livable. We started by attacking only one room. A full day’s work yielded four square meters of open floor space, working piece by piece. Each item necessitated a major decision and this was just too much for Esther to handle, even with help. Esther couldn’t handle the task, and Sadie never came to visit.

Esther may have a case of Hoarding Disorder (HD), a recognized clinical condition. Instead of a professional organizer, Sadie would get the most effective help from a mental health professional.

How do you know when it’s a disorder (and not just disorderly)? Use these as guidelines:

  • The amount and locations of clutter in the home presents a clear and present danger to your parent

And

  • Your parent cannot accept that there is a problem

Or

  • They can’t overcome the problem even with professional organizational help

So even as you bite your lip and utilize deep breathing or mindfulness meditation to deal with your parent’s pack rat habits, keep your eyes out to make sure that the mess isn’t crossing the line. If it is, get help.

Kupot Cholim now provide both psychiatric and psychological therapy services as part of the standard health basket. Municipalities also offer heavily subsidized mental health services. Make an appointment for a consultation and get professional feedback on the situation.