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

For some people, it’s Civil War memorabilia, for others old newspapers and magazines, and for some old yogurt containers and plastic bags. Some of us might have a drawer or a closet filled with things we have been meaning to sort through, but for compulsive hoarders, getting rid of objects that seem worthless to others can be agonizing, and their stuff ends up taking over their lives.

Because of the piles of possessions they can’t bear to part with, hoarders often can’t sit in their living rooms, sleep in their bedrooms or cook in their kitchens. Many have a narrow path from room to room in their homes to navigate through the clutter. Often they can’t find valuable items such as a check or a piece of jewelry. There are safety hazards, such as tripping over piles, or the danger of fire with stacks of papers and magazines all over the house. People who live in houses with excessive clutter are at risk of more health problems because of the dust, mildew and fungus that can be caused by the disorder.

Not much is understood about the causes of hoarding, which is thought to affect over a million Americans. 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. Compulsive hoarding is often a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder or depression.

Professional organizer Dorothy Breininger, CEO of the Center for Organization, recently spoke at the nation’s largest annual conference on compulsive hoarding and cluttering, hosted by the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. She also appears in the new documentary, Saving Our Parents, where she talks about how hoarding can impact the elderly. She spoke with AlterNet’s Emily Wilson about the difference between hoarding and clutter, the safety risks of having a house stuffed with junk, and how to help someone you think may have the disease.

Emily Wilson: How did you get started working in hoarding?

Dorothy Breininger: I got a call in 2003 from the L.A. County Council on Defense. They were looking for someone to help this gentleman who was 76 years old. His name was Lloyd, and he was going to jail because he had too much stuff. He had 5,000 bikes and bike parts in his house, and he was sleeping in a reclining chair on the front porch in inner city L.A. And they asked me if I could help him avoid going to jail and avoid having conservatorship placed on him, and I said "Of course," and then they said, "Well, we can’t pay you," and I really thought about it and said "Yeah, I’ll do it." It took about eight months, and we met with judges and environmentalists and rodent specialists, and we kept him from going to jail. We got his house in shipshape. I kept saying to Lloyd, "If you would only clear the clutter, something good will happen in your life." And he started having people over, he wound up meeting people, he went to church and he wound up meeting and marrying his church sweetheart.

EW: What is it that leads people to do that? Why do people start hoarding?

DB: Often we see it in the senior population, and sometimes they start hoarding maybe after their spouse passed away.  It’s like a great big hug and provides a wall of protection to the outside world. That’s one reason. Another is a serious illness. They can no longer function, they can no longer get out, so they stop going out, they start watching TV and collecting things. Another is they have no family nearby who can help them, and they go unchecked and nobody stops by to see what’s going on. Those are some of the top reasons. And then of course there is OCD, which is obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s right there in the front lobe of the brain. Some of us are just more predisposed to being organized than others. It’s just how our brains are designed.

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.

EW: So how were you able to get him to get rid of all those bike parts?

DB: We had to look at different ways. The first thing I did is build trust by telling him I wouldn’t throw anything away. The second thing I said was, "You will probably want to throw things away once you realize you’re in charge." So giving the person dignity and trust and empowering them. Then really understanding that with hoarders and folks with OCD, they can look at a bunch of quarters and $100 bills and old newspapers, and it’s like they all have the same value. There’s no differentiating piece in the brain. What we want to do is look at their things and say what is most valuable to you. So rather than asking what do you want to throw away, let’s start asking what do you want to keep. And let’s prioritize what you want to keep.

EW: What is the biggest misconception people have about hoarders?

DB: The misconceptions are that people are being ridiculous and they should just get rid of it. The misconception is that you just can’t make decisions. Another one is that they don’t care about their family because when their house is full then family can’t visit. So they think the stuff is more important than the family. There are a lot of misconceptions.

EW: You say hoarding is growing. Do you have any hard numbers?

DB: I know it’s in the millions in terms of hoarders in this country. It’s new in terms of being talked about, but people have been hoarding for a long time, they’ve always collected and hoarded, but it’s only being documented now because it's a health hazard to our neighbors and ourselves. So they, meaning the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, don’t have all the hard numbers. They’re still trying to figure this out.

EW: What about the different degrees of hoarding? What if you have one room with a lot of stuff in it?

DB: That’s not hoarding really. That’s just life in 2008. Lots of people have garages or storage units or basements full of stuff they just can’t get rid of. We were bred in a society through the late '70s and certainly the '80s to collect, and in the '90s, oh boy, we had the money to do it. And it’s only now, especially now with the economy, where we’re being asked to come in as organizers to help them get rid of stuff because they’re losing their houses, they need to move, they need to get their paperwork in order. If you have a room full of stuff, but the rest of the house in pretty livable and you make your appointments on time and can have people over and you pay your bills on time, then you’re OK. If you bring in tons of takeout food and just leave it and don’t clean it up and have rodents or roaches coming into the home, then that impacts daily life and daily health. Then you’re bordering on hoarding. But if it’s not impacting you or your family, probably not.


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