You enter your dad’s home and can’t believe the stacks of stuff that have accumulated on every flat surface: piles of newspapers and mail everywhere, the medicine cabinet overflowing with 10 years worth of hair spray (despite his being bald), heaps of dirty laundry on the bed so there is no place for him to sleep. You wonder how it got this bad.
“A lifetime accumulation of possessions combined with a daily influx of junk mail, bills and newspapers can quickly overwhelm seniors who may already be struggling physically, mentally or emotionally,” said Home Instead Senior Care Co-Founder Paul Hogan.
Experts say that seniors are prone to cluttering for a variety of reasons, including fear of loss, anxiety, depression, not knowing how to get rid of possessions, or even memories associated with specific items that hold no intrinsic value.
“It’s sort of the elephant in the room,” added Dr. Catherine Roster, a University of New Mexico clutter researcher. “People don’t want to acknowledge there is a problem, which creates an underlying anxiety, stress, guilt or embarrassment that can have a negative effect on their mental health and productivity. There are a lot of issues including economics. When there is general disorganization, people lose important documents and can’t find bills and then miss payments. So some serious issues start affecting them. All the research shows that people are slow to recognize the problem.”
And for seniors, the risks of living in clutter are many, from slipping on loose papers to the threat of fire to the health effects of mold and mildew. Clutter can also interfere with family relationships and leave adult children wondering if the only inheritance awaiting them is a big mess.
In order to identify potential trouble, the Home Instead Senior Care network is alerting family caregivers to watch for the signs in a senior’s home that indicate clutter creep could become a problem including:
- Piles of mail and unpaid bills.
- Difficulty walking safely through a home.
- Frustration trying to organize.
- Difficulty managing activities of daily living.
- Expired food in the refrigerator.
- Jammed closets and drawers.
- Compulsive shopping.
- Difficulty deciding whether to discard items.
- A health episode such as a stroke or dementia.
“Family caregivers can become just as overwhelmed as seniors,” said Home Instead Senior Care’s Hogan. We suggest a three-step plan where the family caregiver brings three bins — one for the stuff the senior wants to keep, one for donations and the other for trash. Sometimes seniors just need a little help. One Home Instead CAREGiver helped her client go through a basement full of newspapers and clipped the important articles that he wanted to save, enabling him to throw away the bulk of the clutter. That was a relief to both the senior and his children.”