Ask Amy: Hoarder in the house causes stress

Dear Amy: My spouse (D) and I have been happily married (second marriages) for 25 years. We have adult children and grandchildren and are a very happy family.

D is a paper hoarder. It accumulates in big piles because D is unable to make decisions.

D’s small office is a labyrinth of paper piles that fall over and slither across the floor. The bookshelves are packed.

Because the office is basically unusable, the dining room table becomes a substitute desk.

Our basement is full of moldy boxes mostly full of paper stuff.

Under beds and an unused bedroom are likewise filling up.

I keep ahead of the paper elsewhere in the house, putting it in D’s office to keep the other rooms clear. I intercept the mail so I can throw away the junk immediately.

Bringing this up elicits a lot of anger or passive resistance.

We have hired organizers, but my experience is that the current piles get thinned and filed (slowly and over days), but there is no concurrent re-training, and the piles just grow again.

D experiences a lot of frustration when needed stuff can’t be found, and often important documents or mail disappear into the piles, with bills not being paid, etc.

I need advice on how to help with this and to protect myself and our house from the paper avalanche. I worry about fire and bugs, but more about D’s happiness.

— Buried

Dear Buried: Any “decluttering” will only provide a temporary respite — but the positive news is that “D” is somewhat cooperative, although you can see the anxiety brought on by both the problem and its consequences.

Hoarding disorder (HD) is a serious and persistent disorder that has been linked to anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

You and D should switch all of your accounts to have online access, in order to have your bill paying, utilities, banking, and retirement accounts accessible to both of you at all times — and paperless. This will decrease the amount of paper coming into the house, and should keep both of you on track with bill paying — greatly reducing frustration.

You should not shame or blame D, but recognize hoarding as a serious challenge. Some hoarders respond to a “harm reduction” strategy, versus a focus on simply getting rid of things: “I’m worried about fire. Can we work together to reduce the paper by one-third to reduce the risk to our house?”

Two helpful resources for family members of hoarders:, and the book “Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring,” by two clinicians who deal with this family challenge: Michael A. Tompkins and Tamara L. Hartl (2009, New Harbinger).

Dear Amy: I am soon to be 75.

I am physically and mentally healthy.

This week I spent a grueling 90 minutes with my dental hygienist.

It was grueling because she spoke to me using patronizing and condescending tone and language. I interpret this as ageism and elderspeak.

I felt demeaned, belittled, and angry.

She has been my hygienist for years and she is excellent. She may not even realize what she is doing.

I wanted to say something, but part of me says that this is small potatoes on the plate of life. But I dread seeing her again.

As an RN, I am also a healthcare professional. How we speak to those in our care is important. We need to communicate in a respectful manner.

Your advice?

— No Plaque

Dear No Plaque: It is nearly impossible to respond verbally when you’re having your teeth cleaned. And I agree about small potatoes on the plate of life.

However, you have already expressed feeling dread about your next appointment.

This is having an impact on your healthcare.

You should contact the office manager, and/or owner of the practice.

Give your hygienist all the praise she deserves, and then accurately state your experience at your most recent appointment.

The dental practice should re-train all staff about how to communicate effectively with patients.

Dear Amy: As a psychologist for the past 40 years, I would like to compliment you on your excellent response to “Wondering,” who had been abused by her sister as a child.

Your list of the benefits of therapy were very comprehensive.

I would add only one more: If she is triggered in the present by anything that causes intrusive thoughts, memories, or images of the past abuse, there are cognitive-behavioral strategies to eliminate or reduce these.

— Alan Sirota, Ph.D

Dear Alan: Thank you for your input.

(You can email Amy Dickinson at [email protected] or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

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