It is increasingly viewed and studied as a mental health problem, a complex syndrome that is difficult to cure.
Elderly hoarders sometimes fall into different categories than younger ones. Some suffer from dementia; still others have had to downsize and are overwhelmed by the decisions they must make about what to keep for a smaller space.
"It's a late-life issue," says Steketee. "We want to hang on to our memories, and objects come to take on more significance. We start thinking about what has mattered in our lives; things become the physical embodiment of that."
How can children help? Steketee has some suggestions:
• Don't clean out a home without permission. "This is the fastest way to destroy your relationship with your parent."
• Be consistent, but don't move too fast. "A daughter might slowly help her mother empty one box while asking her about each thing before throwing it away."
• Offer motivation. "Engage them in conversation in a meaningful way. Ask what they'd like to accomplish in their lives in the future. If that includes something like, 'Spend more time with my grandchildren,' the logical reply is 'We'll have to clean out a space for them to sit or a room to play in.' "
• Above all, don't push. "The more you push someone to throw things away, the more they dig in their heels. It never works," Steketee says.
Look in our archives for more on caring for and staying connected with aging parents.