Mum refuses to throw out junk. What can I do?

Compulsive hoarders cannot differentiate between what is valuable and what is not. They just accumulate 'stuff" that eventually incapacitates them in their own homes.

My mother is in her 50s, and, as long as I can remember, she likes to hoard things - newspapers, leaflets, pots and pans and empty bottles just to name a few.

The situation became worse when we moved a year ago. We now live in a five-room HDB flat but there is never enough space. Two of the bedrooms are filled from floor to ceiling with junk and this has spilled over to the living room, kitchen and toilets. Every time I ask my mum to throw away some stuff, she refuses vehemently. She says they are her things and that once she finds the time, she intends to sort them out.

Last week, when I threw out some of the stuff, she got so upset and angry that I decided never to do it again. However, I find it difficult and unfair for my father and I to live like this. We cannot walk around without tripping on something. The house is dusty and dark and there is no communal space for the family to have dinner and talk.

I am a student now, but would like to move out once I start working. However, I know I will worry for my parents who live in this hazardous environment. What can I do? Talking to her is useless as she does not believe that this is a problem. I believe my mother needs counselling. Where can she go for help?

A: Your mother's behaviour appears to be suggestive of what mental health professionals would term a 'compulsive hoarder'.

Compulsive hoarders cannot differentiate between what is valuable and what is not. They just accumulate 'stuff" that eventually incapacitates them in their own homes. Yet they continue to add to their collections and are unwilling to discard any of it.

They become angry at the mere suggestion of getting rid of these items that they have held on to for years. They often do not see their problem and, thus, would resist treatment.

It is advisable for family members to first consult a mental health professional without the sick person being involved. They would then be able to some idea on how to get treatment for the family member.

Dr Lim Yun Chin

The above answer was provided by Dr Lim Yun Chin. Dr Lim is a specialist in psychological medicine at Raffles Hospital.

This story was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times, on Jan 29, 2009.

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