Too Much Stuff, Too Little Space

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

hoarding“I cannot stop watching this …,” “Eye opening …,” “Number of viewers up 46% …”  These are a few of the comments I found on line while researching the very popular television show, “Hoarders.”   The show features real people who hoard items which seem useless to others or who house animals in excessive numbers.   The featured hoarders have allowed ‘helpers’ (therapists, organizers, etc.) and video cameras to enter their homes in an attempt to effect positive change in the living environment and to treat the mental illness that prompts hoarding behaviors.

I have never seen the “Hoarders” show.  I haven’t needed to see it.  In my long career as a geriatric social worker, I have personally witnessed hoarding behaviors in a number of my clients.  Researchers say that between 2% and 5% of the population exhibit hoarding behaviors.  I suspect that as you read this post, you will have someone in mind that you, too, would identify as a hoarder.

Hoarding is more than collecting.  It is the accumulation of too many items and the lack of ability of the part of the hoarder to organize and get rid of the excess items.  A hoarder fills his or her living space with an accumulation of ‘stuff’ that often prevents the hoarder from using the space as it was intended.  An example would be a person who piles so many items in kitchen that there is no place to set items on the countertops or that the stovetop cannot be used safely.  Or a person who has acquired so many animals in the home that there is no place to sit or to eat – the animals have taken over the living areas.  Hoarding of all types may result in unsanitary or hazardous conditions for the individual and for those who share living space with the hoarder.

Symptoms of hoarding often surface in childhood and grow in intensity as one ages.  Often you cannot identify a hoarder simply by looking at them, though some hoarders, such as those who fill their bathtubs with collected items, may be unkempt and unclean.  Hoarders work beside us, shop in the same stores and eat in the same restaurants as we do.

Hoarding often takes place behind closed doors and hoarders will not likely invite others into their overflowing homes or apartments.  Hoarding behaviors often go undetected until the collection of ‘stuff’ begins to negatively affect others, such as when piles of rotting food attract bugs or vermin into an apartment building or when neighbors complain of the stench of animal feces coming from the hoarder’s home.  Though some hoarders fill their yards, cars and extra storage rental units with ‘stuff,’ many hoarding situations may be discovered only when a building manager, utility workman or home health worker is called into the home for an unrelated reason.

Hoarders see value in the things that they collect: piles of newspapers that contain articles to which ‘someday’ the hoarder may need to refer, items purchased from catalogues or television shopping channels which the hoarder may ‘in the future’ be able to use, wear or give as gifts, dozens of cats that, if not ‘rescued’ by the hoarder, would otherwise be hungry and in the streets.

One thing that sets a hoarder apart from a ‘collector’ is the hoarder’s extreme distress, resistance and anxiety when faced with the need to part with the collected items or animals.  Hoarding is not just a habit, it is a mental illness.  It is not a condition that can be ‘fixed’ by a simple one-time cleaning of the residence.  Threatening, criticizing or nagging the hoarder will not result in an improvement of the behavior.

Across the country organized community efforts to intervene in hoarding situations have begun to emerge.  The goal of these teams of professionals is not to extinguish the hoarding behaviors; total elimination of the behavior is not likely.  Efforts are focused on providing respect, understanding and treatment to those afflicted with the illness, ensuring that health and safety codes are met and supporting the hoarder in cleaning, organizing and managing his or her environment with as little psychological trauma as possible to the hoarder.

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County is emerging as a leader in the effort to identify, better understand and develop effective interventions for hoarding situations.  The mission of the newly developed Hoarding Connection of Cuyahoga County is to “provide support and advice, educate, develop best practices and assist in identifying needed resources for individuals who hoard and those who work with individuals who hoard.”

- Posted by Terry Fries-Maloy, MSW, LISW

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