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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are You a Hoarder, or Do You Know Someone Who is a Hoarder?

Illustration created from a Creative Commons Image

If you live in the United States of America, there is a chance that you can answer "yes" to this two-part question.

To what extent may vary, but almost everyone in consumerist America has too much stuff and too little space. However, most of us, from time to time, do weed and organize our stuff, although not as much as we would like. Moreover, most of us know when to discard obvious garbage, such as soda bottles, science projects from the refrigerator, old newspapers and magazines, food wrappers, etc. We might be labeled as "pack rats" for our inability to part with books, records, or even rocks (I plead guilty here). We hoard things that hold intrinsic personal value, even if they are not that useful or "valuable" in a monetary sense.

On the other hand, "compulsive hoarding" is a serious disorder, often requiring intensive psychotherapy and the help of professional organizers. "Compulsive Hoarding" can be defined as

...The excessive acquisition of possessions (and failure to use or discard them), even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary. Compulsive hoarding impairs mobility and interferes with basic activities, including cooking, cleaning, showering, and sleeping (Wikipedia).
A four-part documentary on hoarding:

Hoarding, Part 1, by OtherLives

Parts 2 - 4 can be found at the end of this article.

"Compulsive Hoarders" do not seem to know the difference between garbage and useful items/treasures. In their minds, everything is a treasure, including expired food, used pizza boxes, wrappers, coffee grounds, even fecal matter ("I'm going to use it in my garden," which, of course, will never get planted).

Thankfully, most of us are not compulsive hoarders to the extreme.

But how can you be certain that you are not heading down the path of compulsive hoarding? The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD) has specified five levels of hoarding, Level I being the least serious and Level 5 the most serious:
Level I Hoarder
Household is considered standard. No special knowledge in working with the Chronically Disorganized is necessary. Level I hoarding can be seen as someone overlooking a pile of newspapers or pizza boxes gathering in the corner.
Level II Hoarder
Household requires professional organizers or related professionals to have additional knowledge and understanding of Chronic Disorganization.
Level III Hoarder
Household may require services in addition to those a professional organizer and related professional can provide. Professional organizers and related professionals working with Level III households should have significant training in Chronic Disorganization and have developed a helpful community network of resources, especially mental health providers.
Level IV Hoarder
Household needs the help of a professional organizer and a coordinated team of service providers. Psychological, medical issues or financial hardships are generally involved. Resources will be necessary to bring a household to a functional level. These services may include pest control services, "crime scene cleaners," financial counseling and licensed contractors and handy persons.
Level V Hoarder
Professional organizers should not venture directly into working solo with this type of household. The Level V household may be under the care of a conservator or be an inherited estate of a mentally ill individual. Assistance is needed through the use of a multi-tasked team. These members may include social services and psychological/mental health representative (not applicable if inherited estate), conservator/trustee, building and zoning, fire and safety, landlord, legal aid and/or legal representatives. A written strategy needs to be outlined and contractual agreements made before proceeding.
Click here (.pdf file) for more detailed descriptions of the five levels of hoarding.

Hoarders tend to save certain types of objects, such as toys, their children's items (no matter how trivial), tools, automotive parts, books and magazines.

Probably the most devastating kind of hoarding involves animals--everyone has read about or seen TV documentaries about a pet owner who keeps hundreds of cats or dogs. One can only imagine the horror of such a house: feces, rodents, insects, general decomposition, etc. The ABC News report below shows the physical effects of animal hoarding.


Severe Animal Hoarding case in Indiana (ABC News)


So how can you tell if you are a hoarder or on the verge of becoming one? To determine your risk, answer the following questions:

1. Are you a chronic shopper who buys things, used and new, you don't need, just because they are on sale?

2. Do you feel anxiety at the thought of weeding through your things and getting rid of unused stuff?

3. Do you keep obvious junk, such as junk mail or outdated newspapers and periodicals?

4. Is your home a one-way receptacle of stuff? In other words, do you fail to get rid of old items, even though you have replaced them with new and better items?

5. Are you running out of storage space?

6. Is your home becoming increasingly difficult to navigate? (Narrow pathways, for example).

7. Is your piled-up stuff starting to affect the quality of your life; for example, do you and your family have difficulty accessing and using vital areas of your home, such as the kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, and living room?

8. Has your extended family started commenting negatively on the state of your home?

9. Do you keep three or more pets inside the home?

10. Do you often feel embarrassed to have company over, even close friends and family?
If you answered "yes" to most of these questions, then you might be exhibiting some hoarding tendencies and should probably seek professional help.

Even if your situation seems minor, particularly if you are young, it is especially important to nip hoarding issues in the bud. Prevention is easier to manage than a full-blown hoarding problem.

At least in part, compulsive hoarding seems to be an offshoot of a consumerist, throwaway society. Back in the 1950's, when I was a child, hoarding was extremely rare; in fact, the occasional messy house was a cause for scorn and gossip. Consumers were thrifty and opted for having broken appliances repaired instead of replacing them. Kids wore clothes until they wore out or no longer fit, and usable clothing was passed down to younger siblings or friends. Leftover clothes were donated to the church or a thrift shop. Children did not wear designer clothing, but, rather, tough, practical garments designed for school and play.

Of course, hoarding did exist back in the good old days--one just has to look at the Collyer brothers' case of the 1940's--but this form of obsessive behavior seems to have increased in recent years. Also, back then, young people did not have the disposable income that they do now, so acquisition of stuff occurred more slowly.

For those who are relatives or friends of hoarders: remember to be compassionate with your loved one. Hoarding is a mental illness that defies logic, so these people must be treated with care and understanding, not mocked or scolded. Licensed professionals, such as therapists and organizers, are best equipped to help hoarders.

Cleaning out the hoarder's house without his or her permission is probably the worst thing a family member can do. First and foremost, a hoarder must feel in control of the cleaning out process and have the final say as to what goes and what stays. Otherwise, you risk alienating, perhaps forever, your loved one.

Currently, there are two TV series on hoarding: A&E's Hoarders and The Discovery Health Channel's Hoarding: Buried Alive.

Of the two shows, I believe that Hoarding: Buried Alive does a better job of helping the hoarders that they follow because their therapists and organizers allow the hoarders to take some significant time in getting their stuff cleaned out and their homes in order. The Hoarders' professionals, on the other hand, seem to rush their clients to complete the clean out within a few days, not giving the clients enough time to sort through their feelings and, yes, stuff. Also, the stereotypical scene with that convoy of Got Junk trucks rolling down the street is enough to cause serious trauma to already fragile souls. In some cases, however, the deadlines have been imposed by city officials, not the show's producers. Also, A&E does provide aftercare funds, suggesting that therapy occurs long after the cameras have been turned off.

As long as we remain a consumerist society, the number of hoarders will continue to rise. Both hoarding series show that hoarding can start at an early age and escalate as sufferers grow older. The sooner one gets help, the better the long-term prognosis.


Hoarding, Part 2, by OtherLives

Hoarding, Part 3, by OtherLives

Hoarding, Part 4, by OtherLives


Thanks to OtherLives and feralcatnews for allowing bloggers to embed their videos. Check out their YouTube channels: OtherLives and feralcatnews.

For more information about hoarding and getting professional help:
'Cat Ladies' and Other Species of Hoarders, by Sandra G. Boodman

Clutter Busters, by Bill Strubbe

The Danger of Hoarding, by Joyce Cohen


Hoarding, by Stacey Young

Intro to Hoarding

Saving the World, by Fred Penzel, Ph.D.

Squalor Survivors

Stepping Out of Squalor (Forum)

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