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  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Lois Gaddis, 85, of Citrus Heights admits having a hard time getting rid of possessions, a problem for many older adults.

  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Lois Gaddis says her hen Cleo sometimes follows her into the kitchen but mostly remains outside with the other three hens. Gaddis suffers from bursitis in her shoulders, so she keeps her kitchen possessions on counters where she can reach them.

Clutter can be a problem for older adults

Published: Saturday, May. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 9, 2012 - 10:40 am

Roses fill the front garden. In the back, there are sweetly scented citrus trees and chickens pecking on the deck. And inside the Citrus Heights home are piles of clutter in every room: art magazines from the early 1990s, old newspapers, greeting cards and hand-scrawled notes, empty bottles, completed art projects and art supplies that Lois Gaddis might use, if she ever got around to it.

At 85, Gaddis has trouble getting rid of the stuff in her house.

"As you can see, I'm probably the queen of clutter," she said. "I'm not proud of living like this. My husband was an officer in the Air Force. We did not live like this. The house was wonderful and orderly and easy to maintain."

That was a lifetime of junk ago: Her husband died in 1982. She's so embarrassed by all the stuff she has collected since that she won't even allow close friends inside her house. But she can't stand the thought of getting rid of any of it.

Hoarding is a harsh word for Gaddis' accumulation of possessions. Her clutter doesn't seem that bad – at least, not when compared with the wall-to-wall, ceiling-high mounds of rotting junk featured on today's TV reality shows about hoarding. Gaddis' house seems clean enough, if dusty and crowded.

"When I think of hoarding, I think of the food we hoarded during the war," she said. "This isn't hoarding."

Even so, Gaddis admits she's overwhelmed with the burden of a house crammed with too much stuff, and in that, she's like a growing number of older adults.

The longer people live, the more years of possessions they gather in their lives: An aging country is a country filled with millions of older people hanging onto used plastic bags and scraps of junk mail, while their children and grandchildren urge them to clear it all out.

Some of them simply can't.

Aging experts think there's a difference between the kind of pack-rat clutter found in many older adults' homes and a clinical diagnosis of complusive hoarding, which can occur at any age. Think of cluttering and hoarding on a continuum: Many of the behaviors seem the same, but hoarding goes to the extreme, well beyond mere messiness.

Estimates vary, but researchers agree that 4 percent or 5 percent of Americans save not only sentimental items but also useless things such as empty boxes and expired coupons. The problem can seem worse in the elderly, in part because dementia can alter behavior enough that people hoard food, possessions and, sometimes, animals.

But experts believe compulsive hoarding generally begins decades earlier, with a lifetime habit of quiet compulsion – refusing to throw out things that, objectively speaking, are worthless.

"Think of keeping your wedding dress from a long time ago," said Elizabeth Foster-Ward, a program manager with Sacramento County's Adult Protective Services, which investigates extreme cases of hoarding in the elderly.

"Now imagine everything in your house has the same sentimental value to you. That's how it feels to people."

The satisfaction of touch

A fine line separates a tendency toward pack-rat behavior from true pathology: Not throwing away a few decades' worth of stuff could remain at the level of chronic messiness. Or it could, said Dr. Robin Zasio, a Sacramento psychologist who appears on the A&E series "Hoarders," be an indication of a deeper issue, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Either way, it could be a sign of increasing self-neglect, as well as a potential public health problem.

What about infestations of vermin? How about respiratory illnesses caused by dust and mold? Isn't an unsteady older person likely to fall making his way around random piles of trash in his house? Could a fire spread so quickly that it endangers the neighbors' houses?

"You have safety hazards," said Foster-Ward. "The sewer no longer works, because the toilet has backed up. You see that. Or they have wires hanging out of the walls and stacks of newspapers that are a fire hazard. We get code enforcement involved if the situation is life-threatening."

That's the extreme. The more common situation simply involves too much clutter gathered over the years. For some people, household items seem to multiply exponentially in middle age, when they find it impossible to part with belongings inherited from loved ones who have died.

Contrary to popular thinking, experts say chronic cluttering in the elderly has little to do with being raised to repair, reuse and hang onto old items during the tough Depression era. Rather, it's likely a result of a looming sense of deprivation and loss.

The kids leave home. The parents die, then the siblings and friends and neighbors, then the spouse.

But stuff won't die. Stuff won't leave you to grow old alone.

"Some of this is a matter of control," said Gwynnae Byrd, owner of Sacramento-based Home Transitions, a senior move management company. "As we age, we lose control of a lot of things. We lose control of our health and our ability to see and to drive.

"But you have control over your stuff."

Many older adults' homes are like stage sets left over from their happiest, busiest years, as if they've dipped that era of life in amber and added decades of accumulated junk on top of it.

"People start out collecting on the edges of the house," said Jennie Krause, owner of Sacramento's Jennie Krause Estate Sales. "But it turns into something else. As they get old, they don't feel loved or nurtured, and they get satisfaction out of touching something they own. That's where they get their love."

Loneliness and loss

Here is the coffee table and floral couch in Lois Gaddis' living room where she and her husband liked to entertain. Long ago, someone arranged silk flowers in vases on nearby tables.

Now there's an old grapevine wreath tossed on the coffee table, along with piles of newspapers and scraps of paper, and more stuff is amassed on the couch. A vacuum cleaner hose coils across the floor, and dozens of canvases Gaddis painted long ago block the fireplace. Boxes are stacked in a corner.

She was a young divorcee with four children, two boys and two girls, when she met David Gaddis. Her older children graduated from high school not long after the Gaddises married in 1965. The younger two moved with them to Alaska, then back to Sacramento in 1969.

"He was a wonderful stepfather," Gaddis said. "And I was crazy about him. The house was clean and neat and spotless in those years.

"But David dying really snapped me. I wanted to save everything to have some security around me."

She took art and sculpture classes at American River College in her 50s, and she began saving art supplies, magazines and things she might be able to use again one day.

In 1991, her younger daughter died in a car crash. And Gaddis' world crumbled.

"I almost went crazy," she said. "Then my mother died. My stepfather died. Two of my best friends died. And now Rosie" – her 14-year-old dog – "has died, too.

"The deaths one after another pushed me down. The deaths pushed me under. They resulted in so much loneliness and loss."

Gaddis sifted through a pile of items on an end table and found an old greeting card.

"I keep the cards the kids send," she said. "I think, 'Oh, they touched this.'

"I liked it when the house was neat. I blame Dave for dying. I'd never be like this if he was alive."

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Read more articles by Anita Creamer





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