What is Hoarding?
Hoarding is a complex disorder that is not yet fully understood by the Mental Health Profession. It is compulsive shopping, acquiring, searching and saving of objects which leads to dysfunction, health, and safety issues in the home.
Elderly people may say they compulsively collect all that "stuff" because they believe that an item will be useful or valuable in the future. Or they may claim things are unique, hold sentimental value, or are irreplaceable. Sometimes, the explanation is related to finding "deals" even if the deal is for something they don't need or want. But regardless of the claims, the compulsive collection of items is really a disorder that can have serious consequences.
The Stuff People Hoard
The most common items to hoard are newspapers, clothing, and books. Although research is relatively new it has been found that this behavior is more likely to affect those with a family history of hoarding. Hoarding can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, and economic or educational status. Some believe that hoarding is a reactionary psychological problem caused by feelings of scarcity. But, researchers today have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause.
Risk Factors of Hoarding
Because hoarders are reluctant to seek treatment it is not clear how common hoarding is. Some of the risk factors that researchers have found:
- Age – Hoarding is not limited to any age, race, gender or nationality but it is believed to start in early adolescence. It typically progresses to a moderate problem when a person reaches their 20’s and 30’s, becoming a more severe problem in the 40’s and 50’s. Elderly may develop a hoarding issue due to aging factors.
- Social Isolation – People who hoard are typically socially withdrawn. This can be a result of the hoarding or may be the reason for it.
- Life Events – Leading a stressful life and not having the proper coping mechanisms can lead to hoarding.
- Family History – Research has shown that there is a strong association between family members who are hoarders and becoming one yourself.
- Alcohol Abuse – Studies have shown that about half of all hoarders have a history of alcohol dependency.
Signs and Symptoms of Hoarding
How do you tell if someone is becoming a hoarder? Hoarding is different from cluttering and collecting. Hoarders will save random items from their daily lives and store them haphazardly. Throwing things away, selling, giving away, or even recycling is very difficult for people who hoard. With a hoarding disorder their collections will interfere with life. Some symptoms and behaviors to watch for:
- Holding onto things that most people would consider having no value such as junk mail, newspapers or catalogs, old clothing, broken items.
- Keeping shades drawn, not allowing visitors or family members in, neglected repair work.
- Unsanitary conditions or lack of functional living space. Not able to sleep in their bed or use kitchen appliances; bathrooms facilities are filthy; table or counter tops are full; not able to move freely around the home.
- Obsessive shopping and attaching an intense sentimental attachment to objects.
- Having too many animals in which they can properly care for.
- Hoarding Has Consequences
Since hoarders become so emotionally attached they are unable to distinguish what is trash and what is not. Keeping all of their hoards feels right to the hoarder in spite of safety and health consequences. Hoarding can develop without any other symptoms of another disorder but it is often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. Hoarding in its worst form can be a great health and safety risk or lead to tragedies we have seen in the news. To name a few of the hazards: fire, health problems due to infestations, injuries due to falling over the clutter, structural damage to the home.
How to Help a Hoarder
So how do you address this with a loved one? Not realizing the seriousness of hoarding is common among people who hoard therefore making it a tough conversation. Attempts to help organize usually end up just moving possessions from one location to another.
Since hoarding is being connected to emotional and mental health issues like OCD, depression, and anxiety, seeking professional help may be the only viable course of action. The starting point is tough; after the hoarder acknowledges the problem they must get past their isolation issues and embarrassment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often sought and will pinpoint the thought process that has caused the hoarding. Group Therapy for hoarding also shows promise. Therapy is often combined with medications. Recovery can take months or even years to overcome.
Here are some tips to help a hoarder conquer their clutter:
- Start slow.
- Handle objects only once.
- Scale down collections.
- Toss un-used items.
- Recycle, donate or consider consignment.
The best chance of overcoming a hoarding problem is to catch it in its early stages. While aging does not necessarily make the disorder worse, age and time will make the sheer volume of stuff bigger - the longer it goes on! Hoarding is not about being a sloppy or lazy person. It is about a deeper emotional problem and immediate attention can help nip it before it becomes a serious issue.