Aging in Place with Grace

Someone’s Trash – The Problem of Hoarding

English: Compulsive hoarding Apartment Deutsch...

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“Someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure.”  Have  you ever heard that saying?  For people who hoard, this is actually their reality.  The definitive issue with hoarders is that they have great difficulty in distinguishing between the real and the perceived value of something.  Or put another way, it is the excessive acquisition of possessions and the inability or failure to use or discard them.

The causes behind hoarding are very complex, which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat. Hoarding has been associated with obsessive-compulsive and personality disorders, depression, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorders, a traumatic loss or aging with mobility limitations.  It has also been theorized to be genetic and to affect a specific part of the brain.  If it is difficult, then to determine why is happens, it becomes even more difficult to treat or to instil any kind of behavior changes.

People who hoard have been described as “pack rats,” “obsessive collectors” and “cheapskates.”  It becomes an issue that needs to be dealt with when it creates an unhealthy or unsafe living environment, disrupts family and friend relationships, serves to compound a mental health issue or isolates someone so much that it threatens their very existence.  Hoarding behavior has been documented as starting as early as 7 years of age.
Research and treatment of people who have hoarding behaviors has shown the following as common motivations for not being able to part with possessions:

  • Items are perceived as valuable
  • Items provide a source of security
  • Fear of forgetting or losing items
  • Constant need to collect and keep things
  • Obtaining love not found from people
  • Fear others will obtain their personal information
  • Physical limitations and frailty
  • Inability to organize
  • Self neglect
  • Stressful life events

It is obvious that hoarding is a very complex issue, so working with someone who hoards is very complicated as well.  After all, they have justified to themselves, their families, employers, landlords, etc. as to just why it is so important for them to hold on to their books, animals, teapots, plastic bags and other “things.”  When I ask why they can’t let go of the massive number of items, here is a sample of what I hear:

  • “This is perfectly useful, I can’t just throw it away.”
  • “One day, this might come in handy.”
  • “I bought this doodad to help me get organized.”
  • “This is a precious memory.”
  • “I’m saving this for…my children/grandchildren…when I get another dog…when I lose weight…”

Now imagine hearing that when trying asking them about what to do with every single item when we start sorting! While I do not discount the validity of these statements to the hoarder, the goal is to alter their way of thinking so that they can restore their living space to a healthy environment.  But this is easier said than done.  For me to help them learn how to make decisions that will prevent future hoarding, I need to know why this specific client feels they need to hold on to these items.  In other words, what drives a person to do something that leaves their home full of garbage, of floor to ceiling newspapers, of no where to sit or sleep or with not even any place to prepare food or bathe?  What decision tools can we provide them that will get them on the road to a healthier lifestyle?  It all starts with the most important first step of all:  the initial consultation, which I always do at no charge.  This is my opportunity to build a bond of trust and to ask both the client and the client’s family a lot of questions that will guide me in customizing a plan of action designed specifically for them.

(to be continued….)

© Dr. Jill M. Bjerke 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Your Name] and [Your Blog Name] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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