Nearly everyone will know of someone who has a severely cluttered home – often to the extent of being a hoarder.
While there is a huge difference between regular clutter and excessive hoarding, the problem of hoarding is now so widespread that it has become known as a definite disorder or a condition. Compulsive hoarding is often a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder or depression.
The estimates of the number of hoarders in the USA is now in the millions and it is a similar problem in the UK. Two members of my extended family have become hoarders.
The excessive collection of a whole host of items – often of very little value – stored in bags or piles to such an extent, that the room concerned can no longer be used for its original purpose, best describes this condition.
The criteria for diagnosing the condition
Whether living alone or with others in the household, the amount of hoarding interferes with everyday living. This means that a kitchen for example cannot be used for cooking and meal preparation any more or the bath is so full of clutter that it can no longer be filled with water. Sometimes, it can be difficult or even impossible to gain access to the room.
The hoarding is the cause of distress or negatively affecting the hoarder's quality of life or that of other members of the household.
The hoarder is easily upset when anyone tries to clear up or get rid of the perceived piles of rubbish, resulting in the breakdown of relationships.
Health hazards of hoarding
The risk of tripping over piles of possessions.
The danger of fire with stacks of papers and magazines all over the house.
The health problems that accompany dust, mildew and fungus.
Smoke alarms being unable to function or to be maintained.
In case of an accident, ambulance staff cannot even reach the victim with a stretcher.
Building and safety issues such wires or cabling being eaten by rodents.
Break-ins can occur when there is a lot of junk outside the house.
Bills can remain unpaid and eventually essential services cut off.
Why do people start to hoard?
It could be the elderly - when they become a widow or widower - and the hoarding provides a wall of protection to the outside world.
Serious illness can be another reason when someone can no longer function properly. If they are unable to leave the house, collecting things becomes a substitute.
Being alone and with no close family, there is perhaps no one to see what is happening in the early days before it can become out of hand.
Hoarding is also more likely to start in those of us who are less predisposed to being organized than others.
Compulsive hoarders may have a difficult time getting rid of objects because they are anxious they will need them in the future, feel the items have sentimental value or do not want to be wasteful.
Are you worried about being a hoarder?
Even if you have a room full of possessions, but the rest of the house in virtually livable; you make and keep different types of appointments on time; you are able to invite visitors over; and you pay your bills promptly, it is safe to say you are not a hoarder.
What to do if a friend or a family member has become a hoarder?
It will generally not work for family or close friends to work with the hoarder. You need outside professional help. A professional organizer will go in with a different approach to treat the hoarder's belongings as something of importance and value. The professional will win the hoarder's confidence by letting them know that they are not throwing anything away but allowing them to make choices.
To this end, you need to persuade your friend or family member to come with you to see their medical practitioner as a first step.
They may be able to refer you to a local community mental health team or therapist with the necessary expertise. Resist the impulse to call in any authorities to clear the stuff away in one operation as this will not solve the problem and the hoarding will just start up all over again.
A professional will help the hoarder to understand what makes it difficult to throw things away and the reasons why the clutter has built up. Combined with practical tasks and a plan to work on, the professional will support and encourage the boarder to take responsibility for clearing the clutter from their home.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of therapy that helps hoarders manage their problems by changing how they think (cognitive) and act (behavior) while encouraging them to talk about how they think about themselves, the world and other people, and how what they do affects their thoughts and feelings. This is not a quick fix and can take many months to achieve the treatment goal of improving the hoarder's decision-making and organisational skills, helping them overcome urges to save, and ultimately clear the clutter, room by room.
Unfortunately, hoarding disorders are challenging to treat because many people who hoard usually don't see it as a problem. Even those who are aware are reluctant to seek help because of feelings of shame, humiliation or guilt.
If not addressed, hoarding is a problem that will probably never go away.
Jane writes for Healing Natural Oils, a producer and retailer of high-quality, all-natural treatments for a variety of conditions as well as a range of beauty products. Apart from writing about those various conditions, she also covers general health, environmental and other subjects of interest. She has lived in Kenya as well as Cape Town, South Africa and spent time in San Diego, USA. She now lives in Somerset, England with regular visits from her far-flung children and grandchildren. She is a keen gardener and enjoys growing fresh fruit and vegetables with her husband on their joint allotment. As a result, there is something available to use in the kitchen virtually all year round. Her regular posts can be found on our blog.