Life in old age: learning to cope with a mind cluttered with the past

Peter Kammerer watches his mother struggle to come to terms with letting go of possessions collected over a lifetime that now constitute her very identity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 12:35pm

I want the best for my mother, who, at 85 years of age and frail after several falls, is well and truly in her twilight years. Yet there is little I can do to make her life easier as she resists change. She lives alone in the house in Australia that my father built in 1958 and refuses to move, insisting that this place is where she will die. The rooms are cluttered with possessions, more than enough for the family of four that once lived there, but far too much to take care of for a single, elderly person in poor health.

My twice-yearly visits are filled with good intentions. Repairs difficult to take care of long distance get carried out and checks are made to see that bills have been paid. Medical records are examined and tweaks made, if necessary, to outside help for cleaning, shopping and gardening. Those essentials taken care of, I then turn my attention to the bulging shelves and cupboards.

By the second hour, my usually placid mother had turned into a raging monster

Bulging is an understatement. My mother is a hoarder. She keeps all she has bought and been given as a gift, to the point that clothes are jammed into closets, shelves packed with what she calls “knick-knacks” and plates and dishes precariously stacked. Chairs and tables line walls; the whole creates a jumble that makes it difficult to move in some rooms.

Visitors are awed by the sight of so much stuff and how much of it is so old, yet well preserved. To them, the house is a museum, a peek into a bygone era. But they don’t see her hundreds of clothes, many that have never been worn. Nor do they know that, if anything is broken or lost, there is a demand to replace it with exactly the same.

My mother is proud of her every possession, believing them all to be highly valuable. Indeed, from the point of view that they constitute her identity and memories, they are priceless. But out of curiosity, I have checked their worth and I know that items a working-class family was able to afford half a century ago have appreciated little in value, if at all.

How a chilling conversation with my elderly mother about her 90-year-old doll made me realise she is lonely

Not that my mother is willing to part with any of it. During my visit last month, I suggested contacting an antique dealer to appraise a cupboard full of plates and dishes that had belonged to my grandparents that was blocking easy access to a room. Surprisingly, she agreed. The man and his wife bought the collection within five minutes of arriving and, noticing the stacked shelves, asked if there was anything else that they could look at and perhaps buy.

There is a term for elderly hoarding disorder, Diogenes syndrome. A 2008 study showed it to be more common than would be expected

The first hour of bargaining was entertaining, even comical, with my mother countering offers with higher ones and unorthodox additions like taxes and interest. She was asking thousands of dollars for plates that were worth no more than A$10 (HK$57.70). Deals that had been agreed on were being withdrawn, reasonable offers responded to with anger and accusations of cheating and thievery. By the second hour, my usually placid mother had turned into a raging monster, spitting abuse at people I believed to be decent and honest.

The anger continued after the couple had left with their purchases and it goes on today with regular phone calls complaining about how she is suffering sleepless nights with worry about what else may have been taken behind her back. The disappearance or breakage of items decades ago is being blamed on them and threats are being made to call police.

There is a term for elderly hoarding disorder, Diogenes syndrome. A 2008 American study showed it to be more common than would be expected, with 6.2 per cent of people aged over 55 exhibiting symptoms. I am now only too aware that for some, my mother among them, parting with possessions is wrenching and worse. For them, it is wrong to meddle with the past.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post