Up to 6 percent of the American population—19 million people—struggle with compulsive hoarding (a sometimes hereditary condition), per this Washington Post article. Worldwide, 2 to 4 percent of people have a hoarding disorder, says US News Health.
But these numbers only tell part of the story.
Many hoarders still keep their behaviors a secret, and contrary to popular perception, many are highly successful, high-functioning individuals who have battled the disorder for decades.
“Hoarding is actually a lifelong affliction," says Terina M. Bainter, a professional organizerbased in Washington state. It often doesn't show up in full force until a person's 5th or 6thdecade though, she says, after a traumatic event (or a series of them) have perpetuated hoarding tendencies.
Dorothy Breininger, a professional organizer who appears on the popular A&E seriesHoarders, teaches that “hoarding is similar to being an alcoholic." Says Breininger, “Folks that hoard (or drink or gamble to excess) in order to numb their emotions and anxiety can be described as having an addiction. There is no one singular reason for this psychology or behavior." For thousands of Breininger's clients, the themes of trauma (e.g., death of a loved one, job loss, or serious illness), overwhelming feelings of anxiety, and hereditary behavior are among the contributing factors.
Loss may be to blame for hoarding's grip on an individual, but it's also a key starting point: “To create change the person must get to the root of the loss and begin the bereavement process that has been stunted by the practice of hoarding," says Leslie Delp, a grief and loss expert with an MA in Counseling Psychology.
Depression, and the Depression Era: Older Adults and Hoarding
Bainter says there are three main types of hoarding disorders—animal, medical, and lifelong—and in the later years, those previously unaffected may end up in the medical category.
“My experience with older adults is that the hoard initially occurs due to a serious illness of their own or the serious illness or death of their spouse," says Breininger. “[This] seems to bring a sudden halt to all routine activities—bill paying, bathing regularly, socializing, having the home repaired, serviced or cleaned. Once the routine stops, the situation snowballs—with less mobility perhaps due to an injury and sudden fears around finances due to unpaid bills— the individual can experience increased grief, depression, loneliness and isolation."
Living through The Great Depression left its mark too. “You saved every mayonnaise jar because you didn't know when you'd get another one," says Sara Getzkin, a California-based professional organizer. Today, things are more readily available, and cheaper, than ever: one trip to the dollar store with a $20 bill in hand means 20 new items must find a place in the buyer's home, adds Getzkin.
Hoarding's Warning Signs
What's the first sign of an excessive hoarding problem? "When you are no longer invited into your parent or grandparent's home—they suggest just 'picking them up and going out for a meal' or 'meeting somewhere for lunch,'" says Breininger. Watch for these other red flags, per Breininger:
- Cell phone voicemails or answering machines are full and you cannot leave a message.
- You notice odors of must, mold, and urine—and signs of poor hygiene.
- You discover your parent or relative is repeatedly missing doctors' appointments or other social events.
- When speaking to your loved one, they mention their phone service or water was shut off.
Be aware too that for 93 percent of hoarders, a co-morbidity such as depression, OCD, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, or ADHD further aggravates behaviors and tendencies, Bainter says. (Note: Only a licensed mental health professional can officially diagnose a hoarding disorder or any of the above co-morbidities.)
What NOT to Do When You're Concerned About a Hoarder
Building trust is absolutely vital when approaching a hoarder you wish to help.
"First of all, do not make remarks like: 'I would just light a match to this place.' Or 'I would just back up a dump truck to the house and get rid of it all,' " says Breininger.
Second, she adds, never clean up a hoard without his/her knowledge of it—like when an individual is hospitalized or on vacation.
"Both of these mistakes decrease any traces of trust your loved one may have had in you," she says. "It only takes one of these mistakes for the person who hoards to shut down, not trust, and not allow ANYONE to help."
Helping Without Shaming: Hoarding Resources, Tech Tools and Innovative Ideas
To continue building trust while taking action, Breininger suggests these next steps:
- Visit the person (whether they want you to or not).
- Minimize your automatic reaction to yell, scream, or verbally attack the person who hoards: instead, ask how he/she feels about the extreme clutter.
- Keep your visit(s) short and thank him/her for allowing you into the home.
- Contact a hoarding task force, therapist or professional organizer in your area.
Breininger will soon offer global virtual social therapy sessions for those who hoard. Being on the A&E show Hoarders offers access to free hoarding help, and she also recommends the following websites and organizations:
Susan Devaney, CEO of The Mavins Group and president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), points to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization's (ICD) educational resources—particularly their Clutter-Hoarding Scale. Better understanding the reasons for chronic disorganization keeps concerned relatives and friends from being judgmental and doing harm, Devaney explains.
Prefer books? Bainter suggests Matt Paxton's The Secret Life of Hoarders, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee, or Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding (Treatments That Work) by David Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee.
Don't leave a "legacy of clutter," advises Getzkin. Streamline your boxes overflowing with handwritten recipes and news/magazine clippings and opt instead for the zero-footprintvirtual bulletin board Pinterest to satisfy your "stuff" cravings. Can't part with Granddad's favorite recliner or Great Aunt's gorgeous but gigantic cherry sideboard buffet? Getzkin suggests using your smartphone or tablet to capture photos of these favorite items, then compiling a book for reminiscing.
Read More: Use these downsizing insights to clear clutter in your or a loved one's home today.