We all have those special sentimental items that we just can’t part with.
They are the keepsake items that mean so much to us: The Teddy Bear that was our best friend growing up, the sports card collections that includes every member of the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins and the 1989 Chicago Cubs, our grandmother’s wedding dress and our grandpa’s old power tools.
Then there’s the meaningless junk that litters our homes: The 30-year-old lawn mower that hasn’t worked in 20 years, the 25-year-old collection of People Magazines that haven’t been read, in well, 25 years; a pile of three years of unopened weekly shoppers unfortunately stored right next to the gas can in the garage; the 14 dozen paper plate sets we bought back in 1993 and never opened; the 5,000 VHS tapes featuring unwatched non-classics like “Howard The Duck,” “Ishtar” and “Weekend At Bernie’s 2;” the hundreds of old soup cans lying around in the attic which for some reason we never threw out; all those colorful 1980s clothes that we haven’t worn, since the 1980s; and the 23 nameless farm cats who’ve taken up residence in some our homes.
We all know the rule of antiques and keepsakes: One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. But holding onto non-valuable items long past their useful expiration date presents all kinds of health and safety risks. Compulsive hoarding can turn your home into a junkyard, compromise its safety and livability, threaten your health and take over your life.
Folks, we’re not hear to judge (there’s nothing wrong with hanging onto your Jean-Claude Van Damme VHS movie collection, but we do recommend taking a good hard look at your Pauly Shore movie library).
Hoarding is defined as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” Hoarding is often, though not always, a symptom of psychiatric disorder. And hoarding, as documented in the A&E television documentary series, is on the rise in America.
Most of us have a drawer or a closet filled with things we’ve been meaning to sort through. But for compulsive hoarders, parting with objects seen as completely worthless to others can be agonizing and sometimes impossible without professional help.
This stuff ends up taking over homeowners’ homes, and, in worst case scenarios, their lives.
You Might Be A Hoarder If …
OK, outside of maybe Martha Stewart, we all have junk scattered around our home, but how do you know if you have a hoarding problem?
As comedian Jeff Foxworthy might joke, If the pile of 15-year-old Domino’s pizza boxes is blocking your route from your bed to the bathroom at the critical hour of 3 in the morning, you might be a hoarder. Numerous studies indicate compulsive hoarding affects more than one million Americans. David Tolin, PhD, a hoarding specialist and author of “Buried In Treasures,” estimates 2 to 5 percent of Americans may meet the criteria of being hoarders.
“We’re talking about a surprising common disorder that has never really been recognized,” Tolin told WebMD. “… It’s a very difficult syndrome to break.”
Excessive home clutter poses safety hazards like tripping, fire hazards (namely, stacks of yellowing newspapers and magazines), health hazards (from breathing the dust, mildew and fungus living on clutter) and makes finding needed items all but impossible.
What Causes Compulsive Hoarding?
Though much is still unknown about the root causes of hoarding, psychologists report compulsive hoarding often as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder or depression.
Dorothy Breininger, CEO of the Center for Organization, a featured source of the new hoarding documentary “Saving Our Parents,” and an expert of the symptoms and root causes of hoarding, says the disorder is most prevalent among seniors.
“Often we see it in the senior population, and sometimes they start hoarding maybe after their spouse passed away,” Breininger told AlterNet’s Emily Wilson. “(Hoarding) is like a great big hug and provides a wall of protection to the outside world.”
Hoarders’ reasoning for hanging onto useless items can be:
- An intense emotional attachment to objects that others see as trivial – even trash.
- A sense that many items have an intrinsic value, likening them to art.
- The assumption that an item might be useful someday, which compels chronic hoarders to save even more.
Other elderly hoarders, Breininger notes, are created by their inability to leave their home or a lack of nearby family to check in on them.
The telltale signs of excessive collecting transforming into compulsive hoarding can be stunning for friends and family.
“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.”
The Health Risks Of Hoarding
Compulsive hoarding creates very real, very immediate, and very serious health risks to homeowners. The biggest trouble begins with their ability to breath: Respiratory problems are common among chronic hoarders (breathing in the mold living on 40-year-old copies of Good Housekeeping isn’t good housekeeping for anyone).
Then there are also the numerous safety issues. Excessive clutter can cause falls or accidents and prevent emergency personnel from reaching the injured hoarder in a timely manner. Home electrical wires can be eaten by rodents (who love to move into hoarding-heavy homes) taking out electricity. Plumbing can go out. Heavy clutter visible from open windows is an open invitation for burglars to target your home.
The end result can also be homelessness if a local Department of Public Health must order a person out or condemn a dwelling, or if the landlord demonstrates in court that the level or type of hoarding seriously violates the tenant’s lease.
But no hoarding hazard is greater than the enormous increased risk of fire. As the National Fire Prevention Association notes: “The accumulation of combustible materials, such as newspapers, clothing and rubbish, can pose a severe fire hazard. The amount of combustible materials creates an extremely hot, fast-spreading fire that is difficult to suppress. Escaping the home in a fire can be impossible due to blocked hallways, doorways and windows. In addition, public safety personnel’s access to the home can be hampered or blocked.”
As Breininger notes, the list of health and safety risks that stem from hoarding “is endless.”
How To Help Hoarders
Most hoarders won’t seek out help on their own because they don’t see their excessive collecting as a problem or a health and safety issue.
Psychologists recommend family members, friends and neighbors adopt a safe, low-key non-judgmental approach to helping compulsive hoarders. Offering to stop by and help them spring or fall clean their homes is a good start. Experts call this type of hoarding therapy “harm reduction.”
“Let’s start asking what do you want to keep?” Breininger said. “And let’s prioritize what you want to keep.”
For serious hoarding habits that pose a direct threat to the hoarder’s health and safety, experts recommending pairing a mental health professional with a hoarder.
Compulsive hoarding poses a direct risk to hoarders’ personal health, and their house’s livability and safety, and can hoard all the joy out of life. And no Pop Tarts box collection is worth that.