Hoarding has its dark and dangerous side

Krystal Simpson Healthy Living
Krystal Simpson
Healthy Living

Modern society is defined by its consumerism; people love to collect things. So many of us have mementos we cherish from our past. And while you may have a Life Magazine collection dating back to the moon landing, others keep so many things that it starts to affect their quality of life and may actually be hazardous to their health. This is the complicated world of compulsive hoarding.

Historically, references to hoarding can be found in literature dating back to the 14th century. Even the famous Sherlock Holmes was described by Watson as having what would now be considered hoarding tendencies, “He had a horror of destroying documents… thus month after month his papers accumulated until every corner of the room was stacked with bundles.”

Hoarding may have been one of Holmes’ eccentricities, but it was thought to be more of a personal quirk. Mental health professionals, social service providers and the millions of people affected by hoarding now know it’s so much more.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders characterizes hoarding as a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their value, to the point that it causes harmful effects for the person and those around them. It affects about five per cent of the population and usually occurs in people over 50, although the tendencies can first appear in adolescence. Hoarding also appears to run in families.

Some of the more common hoarding items include clothing, paper (newspapers, magazines, old bills) and even animals. Individuals who hoard often isolate themselves from family and friends, embarrassed to invite people over in fear of being judged or misunderstood. Family members may have no idea how desperate and dangerous the situation actually is.

Typically, there is so much clutter that the individual can no longer access parts of their own home. Closets and drawers may be jammed to the point they can no longer be closed. The bed may be covered in newspapers and piles of clothes so there is no place to sleep. Hallways are reduced to narrow passageways, posing a risk for falls with no safe route to the bathroom. Take-out boxes may be stacked on the living room couch. The house could be overrun by cats, with animal feces on the floor. In the most extreme of cases, hoarders have been evicted from their apartments or worse yet, found dead in their homes, crushed by the weight of their own collapsed possessions.

In an online interview, the executive director of the International OCD Foundation, Dr. Jeff Szymanski said it’s important to remember that, “a hoarder is not a pack rat. A hoarder is not a slob. A hoarder is not lazy. A part of their brain doesn’t work the way your brain works.” Traditionally, hoarding was classified as an obsessive compulsive disorder, but people who hoard don’t share all of the characteristics of someone who suffers from OCD. As a matter of fact, only one in five people who hoard report OCD symptoms. Subsequently, hoarding now has its own classification.

People who hoard process information differently – while most of us can easily organize our possessions into categories and store them in places that make sense, this is more of difficult for them. People who hoard often have a fear of wasting things or a fear of losing important information. They also may attach emotional significance to objects, making them difficult to get rid of.

So where do you turn if hoarding has become a problem for you or someone you love? While it may be a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider, there is another excellent resource available right here in Winnipeg. A&O: Support Services for Older Adults offers an innovative program called This Full House. The program was developed in 2004, the first of its kind in Canada, and is designed to help older adults whose “stuff fills their homes and limits their lives”.

Stacey Miller, A&O’s manager of community services, explained: “It is a voluntary program that helps individuals 55+ experiencing hoarding behaviour live safely in their home. The program can provide you with a social worker to help you make difficult choices about the belongings in your home and to decrease the anxiety you may feel about letting go.” Stacey said the goal of the program is to help people learn the skills they need to create change in their homes and their lives.

Since its inception, This Full House has assisted over 2,500 individuals. Participants reported feeling relieved that there was finally a safe place to talk about hoarding without judgment. “One client felt that before the program, she was just in survival mode, not able to even consider a future,” Stacey said. This Full House changed all that.

There is currently a waiting list for the program. If you would like more information or would like to be put on the waiting list, please call their intake staff at 204-956-6440. However, A&O is also offering a 15-session group aimed at educating and supporting older adults who struggle with clutter in their homes. This group is also provided at no cost to participants.

Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a not-for-profit service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.

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