Packrats In Trouble: How to Simplify Your Loved One's Home

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • My family has a long history of being packrats. I remember in the mid-1990s when my mom surprised me with a rumpled envelope that she located when she was cleaning out a file. Carefully opening it up, I found a letter that my childhood self had written to the Tooth Fairy requesting payment, as well as the actual tooth for which I was supposed to be reimbursed. Multiply Mom’s tendency to hold on to different things from our family’s past with potential additional contents and you could see trouble brewing.

    During the past 25 years, Mom kept numerous items from her parents’ estate as well as the two fabric stores that my parents owned for several decades. Add in the souvenirs and pictures from Mom’s own love of travel as well as the supplies for her numerous hobbies (such as gardening, sewing, reading and crosswords), and you have the makings of a very rich, interesting life.
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    Mom was also the housekeeper, so she knew where things were. She developed almost all of the household systems – the grocery lists, the laundry schedule, the cleaning schedule. My father, on the other hand, really didn’t have any household chores to call his own. His own desk and music collection were rarely organized. And he, too, has a tendency to accumulate things.

    Fast forward past the year 2000, add Mom’s Alzheimer's diagnosis to the fray, and what was once a relatively cohesive household turned into utter chaos. In my opinion, my parents were ruled by their “stuff’ and were unable to make decisions because of it. They couldn’t move to a retirement community because they needed to get rid of some of their accumulation. They resisted hiring a cleaning lady because they would have to clean up first. And when a cleaning lady was hired, my mom then became paranoid that she was stealing medicine from my mom.

    Then add in to this mix the fact that Mom continued to unwittingly collect more. She would go to the local discount store, find a warm-up suit that she liked, and buy it. By the next day, she’d forget about her new purchase and so when she would visit that same store, she’d see that same warm-up suit, like it, and buy it. By the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimers’ and entered the secure unit, she had purchased at least 15 of the same sweat suit in the same color and the same size. Dad was so overwhelmed with the other “stuff’ in the house that he had no idea what she had purchased.

    I recently watched the movie, Iris, about British poet Iris Murdoch who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. Both Iris and her husband, also a writer, were packrats, keeping books, magazines, and other items that spurred their literary muses. Yet the movie shows that as Iris was overtaken by the disease, her husband got overwhelmed with all the stuff. He refused outside help and by the end of their life together (as depicted in the movie), the dishes were overrunning the sink, the laundry was undone, and the stacks of papers were endless.

    That movie scene mirrors what my parents’ household looked like when Mom was diagnosed. All organizational systems in my parents’ household had broken down. I can understand the reason; therefore, I would suggest that caregivers consider options to help remain afloat.

  • 1. Get help – Hire a cleaning service to clean your home. Having some semblance of household order helps the caregiver’s mental state. Your loved one’s life is chaotic enough; you don’t need the added stress of a chaotic living environment.
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    2. Get help, part 2 – If you won’t bring in a cleaning service, arrange for your loved one to stay with someone else – adult day care, a family member, or a friend – so you can catch up on the household chores. That way you also will have a better idea of what your loved one’s current situation is.

    3. Simplify! – Get rid of the excess “stuff’ in your house through giving it to charity, holding a garage sale, recycling, or throwing it away. That way your attention will not be ruled by your “stuff”; instead, it will be focused on your loved one.

    I inherited my parents’ packrat tendencies, but this experience has made me realize how important it is to get a handle on what you keep, what you toss, and what your priorities are. In my mind, my priority has to be my mom, not her possessions.

    Have you helped loved ones curb their packrat tendencies? Tell us about it in the message boards.

Published On: June 07, 2006