Hoarding horrors abound. Some hoard human waste–yes, feces! Others amass newspapers, food, junk, mementos and/or valuable items. Some hoard animals; others money.
Things provide comfort–no matter the discomfort and chaos the collecting causes. The overwhelming need to acquire gets out of control, to the point of even endangering lives.
“The amount of stuff is like a weight on them physically and mentally–houses are so overfilled that they lose all freedom, they become disengaged in life,” says Ottawa-based hoarding specialist Elaine Birchall.
Hoarders waste away in all the waste, possessions, and accumulation– “yet they don’t see it, it’s their normal.”
Birchall recalls “a case where 112 animals lived in a 25 by 20 foot trailer with a hoarder.” Human and animal suffering was evident. “The non-caged animals ‘owned’ her bed which was in the living room because all of the other spaces were lined with animal cages.”
Although totally devoted to her pets, “the mental and physical needs of the animals were not being met. Her ability to maintain control of the situation was perilous mentally, physically and financially,” adds Birchall.
Overwhelming clutter makes for chaotic living conditions for compulsive collectors, impairing daily activity, physical and mental health, relationships and living conditions.
And we’re fascinated yet appalled by disorder. From books and movies to TV’s amazingly popular show Hoarders - we get immersed in the despair, debris and drama of out-of-control hoarders.
We connect with them on some level; “we all collect so how did it get to that and can it happen to me?” says Birchall.
We all buy too much, are attached to things and keep things we don’t need–will we be next? “We are a culture of stuff–more, more, more. We are educated on how to acquire but not on how to de-acquire,” says Colette Robicheau, a professional organizer and consultant.
According to Robicheau, “there is a difference between the chronically disorganized and hoarders. Disorganized people feel stress relief when organized; hoarders actually feel more stress when organizing.”
Often hoarders have distorted emotional attachment to items, says Birchall, plus “there’s immense distress about placement, necessity and retrieval of items so they’re often left disorganized.”
Hoards of stuff put the hoarder and others at risk. Safety and health codes can be violated. “This is a health concern for both the hoarder because of injury, eating rotten food, and the filth–but also for neighbours, as hoarding is a fire hazard, especially in apartment buildings,” says Birchall, who helps hoarders take control when things are totally out of control.
“I’ve gone into people’s homes or office or garage or car–wherever the hoarding occurs, that’s where I go,” says Birchall, of Birchall Consulting.
And, surprisingly, “many of them are very organized people and extremely successful and senior in their areas of expertise,” says Birchall, adding that it’s found in all cultures and income and education levels. “You never know what goes on behind closed doors.”
Denial is common and so too refusal to change. “It’s very frightening and painful for them,” adds Birchall. Hoarders need intense outside intervention since traditional organizing strategies don’t work.
According to Robicheau, of organizeanything.com,"families become fractured with children giving up out of frustration. Refusals by adult children to let grandchildren come to the hoarder’s house are common. Many attempts to assist without success can end in total estrangement.”
Solutions are not tidy or simple–a quick clean up doesn’t fix it. The disorder doesn’t disappear just because the stuff does, say the experts.
Helping hoarders is about changing their feelings, attitudes and relationship to their possessions– not cleaning up or organizing, says Birchall. Underlying emotional issues need to be dealt with– “there seems to be an underseam of grief and loss.”
She adds that it’s about changing their relationship to their things–things that provide them with great emotional comfort but make their life a living hell.
It impacts relationships to the point where guests don’t come over anymore. Eviction and family breakup can even result. “In many cases, they’ve replaced people with things.”
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* 1%to 2% of the Canadian population hoard.
* Often affects seniors, so as the population ages, hoarding will increase.
* Hoarding is not socioeconomic, so anyone can be a hoarder — rich or poor.
* There’s a frenzy to buy more stuff that is followed by regret after purchasing, spending.
Courtesy of Hoarding.ca