Junk crammed every surface – photo albums, ceramic lamps, bowls with beads inside them, a silver pitcher, framed pictures and along the window ledge small pots of African violets. A pile of recently sorted photographs and letters sat on the table before a chair. The air had the smell of a place that nobody entered. A place with cheap parquet floors but too much heavy furniture, left over from a more prosperous era. “I’ve been sorting through some heirlooms,” she explained.
In this way Ruby describes the home of her husband’s grandmother in Amanda Holmes’ book set in the 1970s I Know Where I am When I’m Falling.
Why are old people’s homes so often full of clutter? Some of us may have assumed that this is simply the way people used to be, and in earlier generations homes were just more crammed with stuff than they are now. But this is not the case, since having to navigate around piles of debris in the homes of older folk is something that has been going on forever.
A cluttered home is one with objects scattered around – magazines, clothing, unpacked shopping – that denotes a person’s inability to get a handle on their domestic environment. Hoarding is different, in that items are kept for the sake of accumulation of possessions, involving floor-to-ceiling storage of often useless things with a person’s living space practically eliminated. These disorders can appear at an early stage in life, but many older people become increasingly susceptible to them.
Part of the problem may be the consumer society; we feel we need the latest thing, or purchase on impulse. The average person has large areas in his/her home stuffed with items that they rarely, or never use. And we have twice as many possessions than we used to have 30 years ago. Many people who have had, or still have, money problems are fearful about throwing things away. Those who experienced rationing in Europe’s wars or America’s Great Depression may feel the urge to hoard ‘just in case’.
There are other reasons why older people hoard howvever. Things may accumulate on ground floors because of difficulty in negotiating stairs. Clutter can provide a sort of comfort blanket for people feeling depressed or lonely, and the thought of clearing it up may seem an insurmountable task – shame may also be experienced.
We also sometimes express fear of throwing away documents, even insurance policies and bank statements that go back decades. Emotional attachment to now useless objects – a wedding dress that is never going to be worn again, back issues of a magazine from an important time, a TV that possibly still works and was our first when we moved into the place we are living in – is difficult to sever. Parting with these possessions can feel like giving away a part of ourselves. We have invested emotionally in these objects, and experience anxiety at the thought our relatives might take them to the tip when we pass on.
If we have an older relative who refuses to clear up, even though their home is becoming a fire hazard or is at risk of attracting vermin, any suggestion we help to declutter will probably be met with resistance.
Ruth had been diagnosed with CBD (compulsive buying disorder). Her condition was linked to an eating disorder (she was obese), and depression due to living with an abusive, diabetic husband who needed constant care and refused to go out. Every day she would come home laden with shopping. When the bank stopped her credit card, she began ordering items from mail order companies in the names of her children and grandchildren. She also ordered gifts for neighbours she hardly knew. Eventually her daughter had to have her declared incapable of managing her affairs and was granted power of attorney. People who score highly on compulsive buying scales have a low tolerance for emotional distress. For the same reason surrounding oneself with familiar but useless objects can provide a sense of security.
Older people who clutter their homes may therefore have a very hard time throwing things away. If we do not want to turn into the sort of mad old person who lives under a pile of debris, we need to ask ourselves now whether our homes contain any useless clutter. Forcing ourselves to get rid of things we haven’t used in years and are unlikely ever to need again is a way of ensuring we never get into the hoarding habit. To find out if we have hoarding tendencies, a good exercise is to practice putting an item of clothing, old cooking utensil or scratched record in the bin. How do we feel and why?
In March 2014 a 67 year old Dallas man went missing. Police were unable to locate him for two weeks. Eventually they entered the house by cutting a hole in the roof as the door was blocked, and he was found by a cadaver dog pinned under the weight of his own possessions. The house was condemned and residents warned to get rat traps when the rodents living inside were released.
“OK I’m cleaning my house today,” said one commentator.
Clearing our living space of debris on a regular basis is an excellent exercise. It gives us space and opens the windows of the soul to new possibilities. Our homes are a reflection of our state of mind and the health of our body. So, any broken suitcases ready for the dump?