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Coming Out of the Closet with Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring

Hoarding is the dirty little secret that is spilling out of the closet. Ask any of your friends if they know someone who hoards and chances are good you’ll start to hear some stories. Your friend’s neighbor. Great Aunt Martha. Someone’s landlord. Someone else’s tenant. Perhaps your own mom. Perhaps even you. It’s been on Oprah. It’s been on Dr. Phil. A&E even has a series on the topic.

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What is Compulsive Hoarding?

Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring has been defined as (Frost and Hartl 1996):
  1. The acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be of useless or of limited value.
  2. Living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed.
  3. Significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

How Do I Know It’s Hoarding?

The NSGCD Clutter Hoarding Scale was developed to provide a common language for professionals and agencies to discuss the level of hoarding in a home from Levels I - V. Chances are good if your parent is at a Level III or above and you have visited the home, you are well aware they have a hoarding problem. There are little trails down the hallway, some doors don’t open all the way, stacks or piles of clutter abound in the space. Questions to ask if you haven’t visited in awhile but suspect some problems: Are you sleeping in your bed? Can you cook on the stove? Can you take a shower or bath? Are all your appliances still working? Are there any plumbing or electrical problems that haven’t been fixed?

Who Hoards?

Hoarding is an equal-opportunity affliction. Wealthy, middle-income, poor, even the homeless. Elderly, middle-aged, and young adults. People who have lived through the Depression or war-ravaged countries as well as those from wealthy families who have never experienced trauma or poverty. Researchers have found that most adults with hoarding issues had some hoarding habits by the time they were 13, some even younger.

What Do People Hoard?

Anything. Sometimes it’s very nice stuff—family possessions with sentimental attachments, fine art, antique furniture or gifts for loved ones that have never been delivered. Often it’s trash—paper bags, used food containers, plastic bottles, margarine tubs or mail, old newspapers and magazines. Some people hoard animals under the mistaken belief they are “saving” them. Whatever is hoarded, however, is usually not taken care of well and if it’s left to sit around long enough, will sustain damage and be rendered useless.

Why Do People Hoard and How Can They Be Helped?

Those are both $60,000 questions and there are researchers studying this right now.

Numerous factors seem to contribute to or are found alongside hoarding situations: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and other brain-based conditions that affect cognitive abilities, some forms of mental illness, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), depression, anxiety, illness, physical disability, and life stressors like death and divorce. Some people manage well for years but may gradually fall into a situation that is overwhelming after a spouse leaves or dies or a physical disability or illness limits their ability to work on clutter in the home. And of course, as we all age, nothing gets any easier to do.

How people with hoarding issues can be helped is the tougher question with even more complex answers. What seems to work well so far is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy supported in the home with someone helping them clear the clutter (therapists, family, friends, or professional organizers who have been trained in helping those who hoard).

What Can Family Members or Loved Ones Do to Help?

First, take a deep breath. There aren’t any easy answers or quick fixes. Forcefully clearing out a loved one’s home can do more harm than good in the end. The best you can do is to educate yourself about hoarding and about your parent’s particular issues that might be contributing to the situation. What do they need—therapy, medication, help with housework, friends, outside interests, caregiver relief, or help with clearing?

If you are a caregiver of someone with a hoarding problem, please remember that hoarding is big. It is bigger than you, it is bigger than your loved one. Like addiction, the person with the problem has to be aware that they have a problem and be ready for change in order for lasting change to occur. That said, it is still hard for many with hoarding issues, even when they are aware and saying they are ready to change, to actually make the changes, halt acquiring and clean up severe clutter. They will need help and support from a team of people and you may be one member of that team, offering love and support in the face of a scary affliction.