It started around the time my mother died, in 2004 or 2005. My elderly father began eating out more–Boston Market, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Chinese food–and he’d bring home the condiments packets and store them in a drawer in the kitchen.
Ketchup packets. Mustard packets. Soy sauce. Duck sauce.
Soon they filled several drawers. I’d find them crammed in the fridge, in the cutlery drawer.
It became a joke with me and my husband when we’d come over to see my father — the neverending packets. We’d go to get a drink from the fridge, and they’d spill out of the top cubby where you’re supposed to keep eggs.
“Hey, Dad,” I joked, “Don’t you think you have enough ketchup packets?”
“Oh, Barb, there’s no sense throwing out good food,” he’d say, peevishly.
This went on for years. I just thought it was a product of his being a child of the Great Depression.
It must have in 2008 or so when I noticed that he wasn’t just hoarding ketchups. He was buying large quantities of food and storing them in the fridge and cupboards. One old man with 80 Snapples. Twenty Rice a Ronis. A shelf-full of spaghetti sauce. He justified it by saying they were on sale at Publix, at the Dollar Store. BOGOs. Ditto his collection of vitamins, which he ordered from Pilgrim’s Pride. He had — I’m not exaggerating — a whole closet full of vitamin bottles in one of his bedrooms. A’s, E’s, C’s, B’s, kelp, ginko biloba. All very neat and gathering dust.
One day I just got fed up with it. I was visiting him from Peru, and when I opened his refrigerator door, the sour smells overwhelmed me. I began opening half-empty containers of yoghurt, alfred sauce, relish — there was mold growing in there. That was when we had an out-and-out fight.
“Dad, the food’s bad; you have to throw it out.”
“There’s nothing wrong with it! Leave me alone!”
Since my son was with me on this trip and eating out of the same refrigerator, I decided to take care of matters by myself. Late that night, I cleaned out all the bad food and threw it in the garbage.
In the morning, I found my father kneeling by the trash bin, angrily retrieving the items I’d thrown out. I was stunned. I tried to reason with him. Nothing doing.
This was the moment that I should have known something was wrong with my father’s mental state. To be precise: This should have clued me off to the fact that he had dementia.
I know that the classic warning sign of Alzheimer’s is forgetting names, dates, appointments — everyday information. That was what I thought back then. It didn’t occur to me that hoarding was anything other than frugalness carried to the extreme. But now when someone tells me that their elderly father-in-law is stashing cases of printer paper in the basement, for instance, or that their formerly tidy mother refuses to throw out years’ worth of newspapers, a red light goes off for me. “How’s your parent’s mental state,” I ask? In the case of the father-in-law, above, yes, it did turn out that he has Alzheimer’s.
It turns out that researchers have identified a strong link between Alzheimer’s disease and hoarding. An article by Aprill Jones on AgingCare.com notes that “Many individuals with Alzheimer’s disease tend to experience an increased tendency to collect things; even items that are used, broken, dirty or of no value.” Jones notes that although the hoarded items clutter the environment and make it unsanitary and even unsafe, individuals persist in hoarding because it makes them feel safe. This is especially true if the person was a collector before contracting the disease.
Bingo. My father was a coin collector.
I wish someone had pointed out this connection to me at the time I was dealing with my father’s problems. Sadly, that never happened. For various reasons, my father’s disease was diagnosed later rather than earlier. But I do mention hoarding to friends and acquaintances who are coping with elderly parents because I believe it is a telltale sign. Call this Lesson #1 that I learned about Alzheimer’s.
Did your elder hoard items? Did you understand at the time that that was a warning sign of dementia? Or were you in denial, as I was then and as many families have been?