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How Compulsive Hoarding Can Threaten Your Health and Take Over Your Life

The inability to part with possessions is often a symptom of psychiatric disorder -- and it's on the rise in America.

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EW: How can you help people?

DB: When working with hoarders and pack rats, it generally doesn’t work for family and very close friends to work with the hoarder, because we feel that they should know better. They feel like, "Come on, don’t be silly, throw it away, get rid of it." But we as professional organizers can go in there and treat their belongings with value and like it’s important to them, which it is, without judgment. So how I do it is let the hoarder know that we’re not going to throw anything away. I promise that I will not throw away anything, and that sort of disarms the hoarder and allows them to make the choices.

EW: There are different degrees of hoarding, right? What would you recommend for an adult child of someone who seemed like they’re starting to keep a lot of stuff around?

DB: Well, what I would do rather than automatically become this judge and jury and saying, "Holy cow, Mom, I mean all these plastic containers? You’ll never use them!" Rather than that, which is what most of us do, I would say something like, "Mom, wow, you have 50, 100 containers here. What is that about? Tell me about that. Do you use them? What is that about?" And really ask them. Generally, our parents come from a time when saving was a virtue. There probably is a good reason why they feel it should be kept. If we stop the judging and just ask, we’ll get the information we need to know whether this is something that might grow into a hazardous situation for them or if it’s just them being them and if they’re a product of the Depression and so forth.

EW: What would be a sign that collecting is becoming a problem?

DB: The signs you can see that it has gone from just a lot of clutter to hoarding is that for example, the plumbing isn’t working or they don’t want someone to come over because the piles are too high and it’s too embarrassing. Or if you see there are aisles in your parents home they couldn’t even get a stretcher in if they were ill. When you notice that your parents or yourself are missing doctors’ appointments, phone calls, going to church or temple, or miss paying bills or have piles of bills, these are all clues we should start asking some questions, not to put them on the defensive but just to learn.

EW: What are the health risks of hoarding?

DB: One of the health risks is people getting respiratory problems. There are also building and safety issues. Wires can get eaten by rodents, and we lose electricity; plumbing usually goes bad; the fire department can’t get in to do general sprinkler set up; break-ins occur when there is a lot of junk outside the house -- the list is endless.

EW: It’s very painful for a lot of people to get rid of their stuff, isn’t it?  How can you talk to them about it?

DB: You want to ask what’s the story behind this. So for Lloyd, I was able to ask, "Well, what’s the story of 5,000 bikes and bike parts inside your house?" And it turned out Lloyd felt he would make money repairing bikes. He was approaching 80 years old and he needed an income. He was alone with no kids. And that’s where he thought his money would be coming in. So that’s really important to understand the story behind it.

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