We have all seen or read about hoarders with the recent explosion of media coverage. But hoarding is nothing new. The term “Pack Rat” and “Crazy Cat Lady” has just been replaced with an actual term, “Hoarder”. Hoarding has been occurring for hundreds of years and will continue to be one of the largest disorders to affect our population. In fact, depending on which study you refer to, hoarding affects upwards of 5%-10% of the population. It is difficult to truly know how many hoarders are out there because the vast majority of them go unreported.
So, What is Hoarding? Simply defined, hoarding is the extreme collecting of anything from trash and animals to clothing and toys. It makes no difference what the hoard is made up of, but to be considered true hoarding it has to be large enough that it disrupts the functionality of a home. The Institution of Chronic Disorganization (ICD and formerly the NSGCD) developed a hoarding scaled where level 5 is the highest level and most severe hoarding to a level 1 which can be found commonly in the average household.
Hoarding is not race, gender, or age specific. It affects poor people as much as it affects the rich. We see hoarders of all types, but most of them do share a couple common factors. Depression is the biggest factor which causes hoarding. We see it in almost every client we meet with. This can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain or a past trauma suffered by the hoarder. One can only imagine the depression increases as their home is no longer functional and the hoarder becomes isolated with little or no social interaction. This allows the hoarder to live in these conditions sometimes for years without being discovered. In fact, it is not uncommon for a hoarder to lay deceased, undiscovered for weeks inside their home. It is truly heartbreaking to think about but a common everyday occurrence.
The second common trait we find in many hoarders is a high I.Q. Hoarders can be extremely brilliant people, many to the genius level which only complicates the disorder as well as tying to reason with them. Many of the hoarders we have seen over the past 16 years hold or have held very prominent careers. In fact our 5 biggest customers are engineers, professors/teachers, psychologists, lawyers and nurses. While studies are currently under way to help understand more about hoarding, I am sure we will see a correlation between this disorder and a person’s I.Q.
Hoarding can also be caused by past physical trauma such as head injuries. Hoarders can give you literally hundreds of reasons why they can’t let go of their stuff, but the most common reasons we hear are that the items are sentimental, are worth money, or they still have use, even if not for them. They simply cannot throw something out, even if they don’t need it or can’t use it.
When faced with a hoarding situation here is what we have learned. A hoarder will not be helped until he or she is ready for help. Hoarding is a complex disorder that needs months or years of therapy in most cases. First a therapist needs to find out the underlying issues that are creating the feelings that make a person hoard. Treatment must also include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as this is designed to help people understand the thoughts and feelings that cause them to make irrational decisions. If a hoarder can understand what makes them decide to hold onto items, over time and with proper treatment they may start to realize that those items are not truly needed. Therapy must be started before the cleanup of a hoarder’s house or the stress and anxiety will most likely be too much for them to handle. The last thing we want to do is further traumatize a hoarder so they never want to attempt a cleanup again.
Hoarding Specialist Featured Expert on A&E’s “Hoarders”
Owner of Steri-Clean “Hoarder Helpers”