How to Help a Parent Declutter

My 70-year-old mother has become somewhat of a hoarder. Since my father died a few years ago, her house is so disorganized and messy with stuff that it is becoming a hazard. What should I do to help her?

Clutter addiction is a problem that affects up to 5% of Americans, many of whom are seniors. The problems can range anywhere from moderate messiness to severe hoarding, which may be related to a mental health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Here are some things you should know along with some tips and resources that can help your mom.

Why People Hoard

Many people hoard because they have an extreme sentimental attachment to their possessions, or they believe they might need their items at a later date. Hoarding can also be a sign that an older person is depressed or showing early signs of dementia.

Common problems for seniors who live amongst excessive clutter include tripping, falling and breaking a bone; overlooking bills; missing medications that are hidden in the clutter; suffering from the environmental effects of mold, mildew and dust; and even living among insects and rodents.

What to Do

If you find that your mom has a moderate clutter problem, there are a number of things you can do to help. Start by having a talk with her, respectfully expressing your concern for her health and safety, and offering your assistance to help declutter. 

Most professional organizers recommend decluttering in small steps. If your mom accepts your offer to help, start by taking one room at a time or even a portion of a room at a time. This will help prevent your mom from getting overwhelmed. 

Before you start, designate three piles or boxes for your mom’s things – one pile is for items she wants to keep and put away, another is the donate pile and the last is the throw away pile.

You and your mom will need to determine which pile each item belongs in as you work. If your mom struggles with sentimental items that she never uses, like her husband’s old tools or her mother’s china for example, suggest she keep only one item for memory sake and donate the rest or give to family members who will use them. You will also need to help her set up a system for organizing the kept items. 

Find Help

If you need some help with the decluttering and organizing, consider hiring a professional organizer who can come to your mom’s home to help you prioritize, organize and remove the clutter. The nonprofit National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals has a directory on its website to help you locate a professional in your area. 

*Aging In Place Transition Services is a local team of professional organizers that Family Staffing Solutions is familiar with. 

If your mom has a more serious hoarding problem (if her daily functioning is impaired or if she is having financial difficulties, health problems, or other issues because of her hoarding) you should seek professional help. A doctor may prescribe antidepressants or therapy to help address control issues, anxiety, depression and other feelings that may underlie the hoarding tendencies to make it easier for her to confront her disorder. 

To learn more and find professional help see the International OCD Foundation which provides a hoarding center on their website, which offers information, resources, treatments, self-help groups and more. 

*(text added by Family Staffing Solutions, Inc.)

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of “The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.