The type of hoarding associated with dementia is quite different from what is depicted on television as a result of a serious mental health disorder. Hoarding as a disease related behavior of dementia tends to more of a collecting and/or gathering activity. And, there is a tendency to not only “pack-rat” the items but also to carry them around throughout the day and/or hide these things. All of which can be particularly frustrating and challenging to caregivers and families.
Rather than ask,” How do we stop this?” a better question might be, “Why does this seem to be a problem?” Hopefully, it’s not just because it is annoying. It is a genuine concern if they are hoarding things like the mail, food, or soiled eating utensils. However, instead of trying to stop the behavior, it is often advisable to simply permit it in a manner that will allow for both the person’s safety as well as the sanity of the caregiver.
Hoarding – like many other AD behaviors – is often the result of an unmet need. Understanding the possible reasons can enable us to meet their needs in another way and prevent or minimize undesired behaviors.
Sometimes people are “gathering” because they are feeling insecure, paranoid about their belongings being stolen or feel a huge loss of control over their life. Feeling lonely, isolated or bored can also be a trigger. When caregivers take the items away from them as soon as they are left unattended, it often reinforces the suspicion that items are not safe unless they remain securely in their personal possession.
Much like a child’s need to carry around a soft blanket for a sense of security, a woman might find it soothing to possess certain small objects, personal items or stacks of soft tissues that can be easily tucked into their pockets or purses. Men might create a feeling of control by carrying or stashing away bills, books, important looking papers or tools. It might even become necessary to sort mail before it comes into the house, rent a post office box or keep valuable items locked away.
Some caregivers find it useful to have a designated drawer or work space for their loved one to collect, work or store their important items. If mail is of great interest, other family members or friends could save their junk mail for the person to open and/or file. There are some women with dementia that enjoy going through “their” drawer for hours when it is filled with jewelry, recipe cards or old photographs. It’s even better when the drawer is labeled with their name.
Together you can create a personal Treasure Box that is large enough to provide a safe place to keep things that are essential to their well-being and can be carried. For some, portability is important. The container could be personalized with their name and decorated according to personal interests, a favorite there or color. It would be theirs alone … and everybody can be content.
By Pam Kovacs Johnson