Senile Squalor and Hoarding
A brief overview of Diogenes Syndrome
Posted October 8, 2015
In a previous blog on animal hoarding I made a passing reference to Diogenes Syndrome (DS) that is sometimes referred to as ‘senile squalor syndrome’ (as it typically occurs in elderly individuals – although it has occasionally been reported in young adults). According to a paper by Alberto Pertusa and colleagues in a 2010 issue of Clinical Psychology Review:
“Squalor has been defined in various ways including, ‘social breakdown of the elderly’, ‘Diogenes syndrome’ and ‘severe domestic squalor’…These definitions have usually encompassed both domestic neglect and a lack of personal hygiene…The majority of case observations and studies on squalor have focused on elderly populations recruited from nursing or disability services…These studies initially suggested that those living in squalor were likely to be over the age of 60, primarily female, living alone and unmarried…Hypotheses on the etiology of squalor have moved from the phenomenon possibly being uni-dimensional to having heterogeneous causes such as physical disabilities, brain damage, psychiatric conditions, and personality disorders…A study on squalor reported the prevalence to be 0.005% in the United Kingdom”.
Hoarding is often a consequence of having DS but is associated with self-neglect and much of the items excessively hoarded are typically items of trash with little or no value. Like animal hoarders, those with DS often live on their own in severe domestic squalor and unsanitary conditions. As I noted in my previous blog, DS is characterized by extreme self-neglect, apathy, domestic squalor, social withdrawal, compulsive hoarding of rubbish, and lack of shame. Most sufferers refuse help of others and the onset of DS may sometimes be initiated by a stressful event in their lives (such as death of a loved one). According to a 2013 paper on DS by Dr. Projna Biswas and colleagues in the journal Case Reports in Dermatological Medicine:
“DS is named after the Greek Philosopher “Diogenes of Sinope” (4th century BC) who taught about cynicism philosophy. He kept his need for clothing and food to a minimum by begging. He used to follow some ideas like ‘life according to nature’, ‘self-sufficiency’, ‘freedom from emotion’, ‘lack of shame’, ‘outspokenness’, and ‘contempt for social organization’…The approximate annual incidence of Diogenes is 0.05% in people over the age of 60 [years]. Affected individuals come from any socioeconomic status, but are usually of average or above-average intelligence…It is often associated with other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, mania, and frontotemporal dementia…While no clear etiology exists, it is hypothesized that it may be due to a stress reaction in people with certain pre-morbid personality traits, such as being aloof, or certain personality disorders, such as schizotypal or obsessive compulsive personality disorder. There are suggestions that an orbitofrontal brain lesion may lead to such behaviours…while others state that chronic mania symptoms, such as poor insight, can lead to such a condition”.
DS was not included separately in the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) although hoarding (syllogomania) is included as a genuine psychiatric diagnosis. Because of deliberate self-isolation, physical neglect and poor eating, DS mortality rates are high with close to half of sufferers dying within five years of DS onset. Biswas and colleagues also note:
“Diogenes syndrome is also known as dermatitis passivata. The term Diogenes syndrome was coined in 1975 by [Clark and colleagues]…DS has been classified as primary or pure which is not associated with mental illness and secondary or symptomatic. Secondary DS is related to mental illness like schizophrenia, depression, and dementia…Alcohol abuse has been identified as a cofactor…Multiple deficiency states have been associated with DS including iron, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin C, calcium and vitamin D, serum proteins and albumin, water, and potassium…Skin lesions are mainly due to uncleanliness which may result in various infestations and infections. These are ignored by the patient. Dirt, dust, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic debris conglomerate to form thick crusts and scales over various parts of the body”.
The paper by Biswas and colleagues’ asserted that four symptoms have been reported as being in almost all DS sufferers. These are that they: (i) never ask for any help despite possessing nothing; (ii) are unusually fond of certain objects (including rubbish); (iii) display unusual behavior with other people (misanthropy) and (iv) display extreme self-neglect. Although hoarding is often present in those with DS, there have been some cases reported where no hoarding was present. In their 2010 review paper, Dr. Pertusa and colleagues noted:
“Research on hoarding has rarely included assessments of severe domestic squalor. Winsberg et al. (1999) noted that clutter inhibited normal activities of daily living – including personal hygiene. A few studies have provided more direct indications of squalor in hoarding. [one study in 2000] surveyed health department officers in Massachusetts who reported that 38% of their hoarding cases were ‘heavily cluttered with filthy environment, overwhelming’. [Another study] focused on cleanliness ratings of the personal appearance and the homes of 62 elderly hoarding individuals. In their sample, 17% of individuals were described as ‘extremely filthy’ and 33% of residences were rated as ‘extremely filthy and dirty’. For 32% of the residences, there was an overpowering odor from rotten food or animal or human feces. Many subjects could not use their refrigerator (45%), kitchen sink (42%), bathtub (42%), or toilet (10%). Lack of standardized instruments to measure squalor have prevented researchers from understanding squalor in compulsive hoarding”.
Dr. Pertusa and his colleagues claim the data on DS is scarce and that the clinical picture between hoarding and DS needs more clinical research. They do conclude that hoarding within a DS diagnosis is clinically different from other types of hoarding (for instance, compulsive hoarders do not display the same core features as those with DS such as squalor and self-neglect). Like many other clinical conditions, Pertusa’s team assert that longitudinal studies will best help uncovering the natural history and link (if any) between both DS and compulsive hoarding.
References and further reading
Biswas, P., Ganguly, A., Bala, S., Nag, F., Choudhary, N., & Sen, S. (2013). Diogenes syndrome: a case report. Case Reports in Dermatological Medicine, 595192. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/595192
Clark, A. N., Mankikar, G. D., & Gray, I. (1975). Diogenes syndrome. A clinical study of gross neglect in old age. Lancet, 1(7903), 366−368.
Drummond, L.M., Turner, J., Reid, S. (1996). Diogenes’ syndrome – a load of old rubbish? Irish Journal of Psychiatric Medicine, 14(3), 99–102.
Greve, K.W., Curtis, K.L., & Bianchini, K.J. (2004). Personality disorder masquerading as dementia: A case of apparent Diogenes syndrome. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 19, 703–705
Irvine, J. D., & Nwachukwu, K. (2014). Recognizing Diogenes syndrome: a case report. BMC Research Notes, 7(1), 276.
Pertusa, A., Frost, R.O., Fullana, M.A., Samuels, J., Steketee, G., Tolin, D., Saxena, S., Leckman, J.F., Mataix-Cols, D. (2010). Refining the diagnostic boundaries of compulsive hoarding: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 371-386.
Rosenthal, M., Stelian, J., & Wagner, J. (1999). Diogenes syndrome and hoarding in the elderly: Case Reports. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 36, 29–34.