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Monday, December 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Growing Older / Liz Taylor

Wife is at her wits' end over hoarding husband

Q: My husband hoards things, filling the basement with the most distasteful stuff. It started in his youth and now, at age 72, he's over the top. He goes out in public with matted hair, filthy clothes, and looks like he lives under a bridge.

I wrote to his doctor just a day before his appointment, but the doctor said nothing to him. I am totally alone in this — not one of the three kids will say anything to him. He keeps propane in the basement, so I called the health and fire departments, but they said it's a domestic thing and out of their territory. If I haul the garbage away, he hauls it back in and yells at me.

My one hope is that I outlive him and, in the end, have some semblance of a normal life.

A: Your husband has Hoarder's Syndrome, an obsession he cannot control. It's a mental illness, according to Karen Kent of Evergreen Healthcare, that usually starts when the person is a young adult. With retirement it gets worse because the control mechanism (such as a job) is gone, and the person has more time available to hoard.

It affects people in all income levels and neighborhoods, and, interestingly, all cultures.

The possible causes, all of them chronic mental illnesses, include obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, dementia (when occurring late in life), attention deficit disorder and severe depression. It is one of the most difficult mental illnesses to treat.

Most older hoarders, Kent says, never married and live alone. Their favorite things to save are newspapers and used food containers — but everything else is game: clothes, canned goods, car parts, junk mail, shampoo bottles, decaying meat, bikes, pieces of plastic, you name it. They have no insight into their behavior, so they find nothing peculiar, putrid or unsafe about what they do. Medications work in about half the cases, but most hoarders won't see a doctor. It's a compulsion they can't resist. They can't stop.

Except for having a family, your husband fits the pattern to a T.

"Hoarders are highly anxious people," says Ken Ryan, a clinical supervisor with Older Adult Services, Highline/West Seattle Mental Health Center. "They feel better when they collect stuff — it decreases their anxiety, making it self-reinforcing. If you take their stuff away, their anxiety increases, and they do it worse."

Resources for helping hoarders, their families, and their neighbors are extremely limited and vary by county. The best bet, says Kent, is to call your local Senior Information & Assistance office, 888-4ELDERS (888-4353377), in King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce counties or mental-health therapists to learn what exists in your area.

Messies Anonymous is another resource that offers — at www.messies.com — books, advice and support groups for families and people suffering from hoarding. You can learn about support groups in this area by calling 206-244-7035 (leave a message).

Messies Anonymous reports that hoarding is a continuum, from having an extremely messy house to a house that should be condemned. Its support groups are open to all.

About this reader, Ryan said, "Waiting for her husband to die before she can have a life isn't the answer. She can't help him, but she can help herself. Either she must accept him, become active in changing him (or go to therapy for herself) or leave him. It's time to end her misery."

Q: My mom and dad don't have much money. Last year they huddled in blankets all winter because they needed to reduce their heat bills. Is there any financial help that would keep them warm this winter?

A: Several possibilities exist. The Energy Assistance Program helps low-income people of any age pay for heat. Maximum monthly income for one person is $923, up to $1,565 for three. These are federal dollars and available nationwide.

In our area, contact the Central Area Motivation Program in Seattle (206-328-2356) or The Multi-Service Centers in Federal Way (253-874-4328), Kent (253-850-1338), or North & East King County (425-869-6027).

Two utility-assistance programs offer discounts to customers of Seattle City Light and Seattle's Combined Utilities (other cities' utilities do this as well). One is available to people (any age) with monthly income under $1,478 (1 person) and $1,991 (two people). The other is for people 65+ or disabled younger people with income under $1,948 (1 person) and $2,575 (2 people).

Contact the Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens at 206-684-0268.

Liz Taylor, a specialist on aging and long-term care, counsels individuals and teaches workshops on how to plan for one's aging — and aging parents. You can e-mail her with questions at growingolder@seattletimes.com or write to Liz Taylor, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

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