We all know someone who’s a hoarder – a relative or friend whose home had goat paths through mounds of stuff, some of it valuable, much of it garbage, and all of it a potential risk to their own safety and that of others.
Fire departments and housing inspectors estimate that 10 percent of the population hoards, said speaker Janet Yeats, an expert in the field. Others say that number could be as high as 25 percent, and it impacts most of the population.
A full room, 60 or more people, at River Village East Oct. 3 included health and social workers plus community members looking for help understanding and dealing with hoarding disorder. Yeats presented the program for Catholic Eldercare and Joyful Companions, who team up for presentations on various topics a few times a year.
The important take-aways:
Hoarders tend to have had at least one trauma or loss in their life for which they have not grieved in the typical ways. Collecting stuff that they will never touch again is their attempt to fill up the hole. Long classified with obsessive-compulsive disorders, in 2015 hoarding was re-classified as an anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by health professionals.
“The hoard itself plays a role,” Yeats emphasized. Until they get help “processing” the emotional stuff underneath, it won’t help to clean out a hoarder’s home, they’ll just start collecting again. Taking away their stuff re-traumatizes the person.
Speaking of collecting, not everyone who collects stuff is considered a hoarder. Folks who lived through the Depression and the World Wars kept a lot of stuff because they knew they wouldn’t have money to replace things that broke, so they kept everything in case it could be repurposed.
There’s clutter that’s a function of time – temporary, for weeks or months at the most. Collections ideally should be displayed for our pleasure and others, but having many such related things doesn’t usually disable the use of a room.
A true test, Yeats said, is that “living spaces that can’t be used for their intended purposes because of clutter.” The news holds horror stories of people buried under piles of stuff that finally collapsed on them in their bedrooms. “Ask, ‘can you cook in your kitchen, can I park the car in the garage?’”
Who does hoarding hurt?
It’s “a mental health disorder that has public safety implications.” If there’s spoiled or rotting food, or animal wastes, in the house along with the excessive objects, a hoarded house can not only be toxic to its resident, but to neighbors through insect infestations and upper respiratory risks.
Yeats told a story of a person who appeared responsible and hard-working, whose income from two jobs went to support storage lockers for stuff he continued collecting. When he died, his debts transferred to his unwitting children.
What to do about a hoarded house?
Yeats’ presentation focused on “getting to safety first,” to help the hoarder set goals and help them achieve them, such as unblocking exits and organizing to the point of having at least three-foot pathways (the width of a gurney) through the active living area. Helping them with emotional regulation, self-awareness and organization might come next, then therapy.
Don’t, she said, give a hoarder money. If you want to help, pay directly for things that they need, like food. Money would just go into buying more stuff.
Who are these hoarders?
A gene linked to hoarding behavior shows up on chromosome 13, as does a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease. “Ask who else in your family hoards?” You’ll find that more than half the time they can name a close relative known or suspected to have the behaviors, according to a 1999 study, Yeats said. It may be genetic or learned from a parent…one person who went on to become a hoarder remembers she could not have sleepovers in her youth nor open the door all the way, lest visitors see how packed their house was with stuff.
A 2011 study showed that 53.5 percent of hoarders also have other anxiety disorders, 50.7% have major depressive disorders, and there are other co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders are on the rise among hoarders, Yeats said.
Research on animal hoarding is 20 years behind object hoarding (stuff), and the individuals began with the best intentions and did not intend to harm the animals, Yeats said. In animal hoarding, “the single middle- aged woman stereotype is borne out.”
But that stereotype is the exception.
Yeats said hoarding of objects happens with young and old, female and male, high income and low income in about equal numbers. “They aren’t crazy, lazy people. They are us, we are them.”