Hoarding – advice & resources for all

Compulsive hoarding is a debilitating psychological condition that is only just beginning to be recognised.

A very basic description of a compulsive hoarder is someone who is unable to dispose of excess or unused things things – the items can be of little or no monetary value and usually result in unmanageable amounts of clutter.

Hoarding is considered to be a significant problem if:

Hoarding disorders are challenging to treat, because many people who hoard frequently don’t see it as a problem, or have little awareness of how it’s impacting their life or the lives of others. Many others do realise they have a problem, but are reluctant to seek help because they feel extremely ashamed, humiliated or guilty about it.

It is really important to encourage a person who is hoarding to seek help, as their difficulties discarding objects can not only cause loneliness and mental health problems, but also pose a health and safety risk. If not tackled, it’s a problem that will probably never go away.

The hoarding could also be a sign of an underlying condition, such as OCD, other types of anxiety, depression and potentially more serious conditions, such as dementia.

The NHS has a useful page which explains:

ClutterGone
ClutterGone is a website designed to give as much help and advice as possible around the issues of hoarding and clutter.

If you have a problem with clutter, have you ever wondered why? For most people it is a series of life events and circumstances that lead them to feel overwhelmed. When something has to give, that something is often clutter!

So what is going on in your life? Clutter gone have produced a short online test helps you find out. All you need do is answer a few simple questions – it should only take about three minutes. You will be asked about your lifestyle, health, recent major events and changes in your life. Results will then be sent to you by e-mail. All information that you provide is completely confidential. You can, if you wish, remain anonymous, there is no need to fill in your real name, but to receive the results you will need to enter a valid e-mail address.

To take the test simply visit their website at www.cluttergone.co.uk

Keith’s story
Birmingham Safeguarding Adults Board has produced a film about hoarding – Keith’s story. The Board produced the film to raise awareness of hoarding and to guide professionals on what kinds of interventions seem to work the best so that the people affected (both the person who hoards and other people whose lives this impacts upon) get the support that they need.

The film tells Keith’s story, in his own words, describing how hoarding affected his life and with the right support, his journey to recovery. Professionals (including fire officers, social workers and mental health staff) talk about the challenges hoarding can present and approaches that can help support recovery.

The film is aimed at anyone whose lives are affected by hoarding. This could be professionals or volunteers who work in the community, people who hoard, their neighbours, friends or family. The film suggests how to approach hoarding and offers advice and help for those who hoard.

The film is available to watch on the Birmingham Safeguarding Adults Board’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com

What you can do if you suspect someone is hoarding

If you think a family member or someone you know has a hoarding disorder, try to persuade them to come with you to see a GP.

This may not be easy, as someone who hoards might not think they need help. Try to be sensitive about the issue and emphasise your concerns for their health and wellbeing.

Reassure them that nobody is going to go into their home and throw everything out. You’re just going to have a chat with the doctor about their hoarding to see what can be done and what support is available to empower them to begin the process of decluttering.

Your GP may be able to refer you to your local community mental health team, which might have a therapist who’s familiar with issues such as OCD and hoarding. If you have difficulties accessing therapy, the charity OCD-UK may be able to help.

It is generally not a good idea to get extra storage space or call in the council or environmental health to clear the rubbish away. This won’t solve the problem and the clutter often quickly builds up again.

Helpforhoarders.co.uk provides information, support and advice and create awareness about this secretive condition, for hoarders and their loved ones.

The website has an excellent resource page which includes:

  • information on the medical aspects of hoarding
  • a list of hoarding websites offering support and advice
  • a list of therapists and groups including links to the website www.anxietyuk.org.uk/get-help and they also have a helpline open Mon to Fri between 9.30am and 5.30pm on tele: 08444 775 774
  • recommendations for books and videos
  • list of ‘De-clutterers’ can be found on the website www.apdo-uk.co.uk – this is the Association of Professional De-clutterers and Organisers who can put you in touch with professionals in your area that are willing to work with hoarders
  • tips on how to let go of your unwanted possessions by selling, using a clearance service, recycling or donating to charity
  • charities which can provide practical help
  • a list of websites for professionals who work with hoarders.

Clutter Image Ratings are available to download on the hoardinguk.org website. These can then be used to assess the condition of a hoarded home and the hoarder’s level of insight.

Useful external links:

Fire Safety Tips

If you do store large amounts of possessions in and around your home, you can help keep yourself safe from fire by following the advice below. These small, simple steps can easily be included in your regular weekly/daily clearance sessions.

  • Whether you use a traditional oven and hob, or other methods of cooking like a portable stove, make it a priority to keep the cooking area clear.
  • Do not place items on, or close to heaters, lamps, or other electrical equipment.
  • Do not store gas cylinders in your home as they are a serious hazard during a fire. If you have a medical need for gas cylinders, you require oxygen for example, they should be kept upright and outdoors where possible. Do not store cylinders in basements, under stairs or in cupboards with electric meters/equipment.
  • If you smoke, use a proper ashtray that won’t burn and put it on a flat, stable surface so that it can’t fall over easily. Do not leave your lit cigarettes unattended.
  • Put candles or tea lights in heat resistant holders that hold the candle or tea light firmly. Ensure the holder is placed on a flat, stable, heat resistant surface. Keep candles and tea lights away from anything that can catch fire, and never leave them unattended.
  • Make sure you have a working smoke alarm and test it as part of your regular clearance sessions. You can contact Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service for advice.
  • Plan and practice how to escape from your home if there were a fire. Choose an escape route and keep it clear of possessions – in the event of a fire this will help you to escape quickly or allow firefighters to reach you if you are unable to escape.
  • Ensure possessions are stored on stable surfaces and do not stack items to a height that they become unstable – they could fall over blocking your escape.
  • Newspapers and mail stored in bulk are highly combustible and will cause a fire to spread rapidly. Sort mail and newspapers on the day you receive them and recycle them on a regular basis.
  • In the event of a fire, do not attempt to put it out yourself – leave your home straight away and call the fire & rescue service once you are safely outside. Do not stop on your way out to collect possessions and do not go back inside once you have escaped.

The psychology of compulsive hoarding

Compulsive hoarding as a survival mechanism
Some hoarding situations can be part of survival mechanisms. Traditional farming entails saving or ‘hoarding’ a harvest to last through the winter, saving seed to be planted in the spring. Other animals hoard. Squirrels gather nuts. Brain scans done on squirrels show activity in the same areas as human hoarders.

Emergency candles, tinned goods and spare light bulbs are all useful things in moderation. With a compulsive hoarder these positive choices are taken to an extreme where they no longer have any meaning or use. The food kept by farmers for the winter will rot if not used. Old seed loses its ability to sprout. It is at this point that the psychological factors come into play.

Compulsive hoarding manifestations
The most familiar manifestation of hoarding is what is known in animal research as a ‘cache’. This version is the one most often depicted in the media: a house over full with stuff coming out the doors and windows. The hoarder protects it all.

There is another animal hoarding behaviour known as ‘cache spacing’ which is used by ‘scatter hoarders’. Animals, like kangaroo rats, store their seeds in different places to assure themselves of food even if one cache is raided by another animal. Squirrels sometimes bury their small caches and then forget where. The nuts and seeds are able to germinate which assures the animals long term food supply.

Psychological factors
The psychological component is effectively what locks the sufferer down turning their hoard into frozen pain. The clogs and clots of things pile up into protective shells for their owners. In severe cases, moving single items, not even throwing them away will elicit cries and panic from the hoarder. It is very important to recognise this part of hoarding. A non-sufferer will look at a hoarders house and think: All that is needed here is a good clear out. The house will then be livable again. Meals can be cooked. Beds can be slept in. Windows can be opened. Guests can be invited.

However, the hoarder has stopped living in their home. The home has become a storage facility with the owner serving the things rather than the things serving the owner. Sometimes the hoarder will escape to other places to live. This can take the form of frequent holidays.

The logic of the compulsive hoarder
Because there are times and places where hoarding has saved lives, compulsive hoarders are provided with reasons and justifications for their clogged homes. They will argue that a person is entitled to live as they choose. Doctors and other health professionals will speak about how ‘logical’ a compulsive hoarder can be.

Hoarder logic can be applied to individual small things, micro behaviors: keeping a plastic bag, one newspaper etc. this is then combined with an inability to see or be embarrassed by the macro result: 1,000 plastic bags and huge towers of newspapers.

If the hoarder is embarrassed by the house and they don’t want people to see how they live, it is an encouraging sign since it means that the hoarder has accepted that there is something not right. This can be a first step towards seeking help.

Compulsive hoarding and acquiring
Compulsive hoarding is not just keeping things. It is also acquiring. Sometimes this can be out of control shopping and buying. Other times it can be skip diving and scavenging. If embarrassment about the condition in which they are living is the hoarders first step back to a living breathing home, stopping the acquiring cycle is the next. Again it is important to highlight how acquiring is ‘normal’ behavior.

We all need to acquire food and clothing. There are times when most people will experience the pleasure of a comfort buy: a chocolate bar, a new pair of shoes, a CD or a magazine. When we are ill, having trouble at work or mourning a death these small things can get us through a day. For the hoarder the purchase has two functions the first is that moment of acquisitive pleasure and the second is to build the shell walls higher, to make themselves feel safer. Safety, and confidence are crucial in enabling the hoarder to stop building the walls higher, let alone dismantling them.

Consequences of compulsive hoarding
A hoard can become a major health hazard, fire risk or promote vermin. In these cases government departments move in and radically clear the site stripping the hoarder of their shell. These are the cases that become come to the public notice in the news. The hoarder regards this as rape and will almost certainly re-establish their protecting walls of junk within as little as three months.

Unless the psychological aspects are addressed, a livable home cannot be achieved.

Hoarding and collecting
It is also important to differentiate between a hoard and a collection. A collector is someone who is proud of the collected things and wants to show them off. They invite guests to admire their collections. A hoarder is the opposite. They not want anyone in their home. For hoarders, barring visitors has to do with a fear that the visitor will move or destroy something. There are cases where trauma can tip a collector over the edge into becoming a hoarder.

A hidden illness
Hoarders who live alone can go unrecognised for years and years until their neighbours start to feel the impact. During their working life, the hoarder will go out to work and entertain in public places. Once they retire and/or become disabled the situation can become even worse and be compounded by increasing depression.
Not just the hoarder, but their family

Many times families will give-up. Children who have grown up in a household clogged with refuse and paper will leave home and never return. If they see their parent(s) at all, it will be in their own homes or restaurants. The tragedy is that often the parents never get to know their grandchildren. There are some online support groups for children of hoarders.

A gradual process
The process of a cluttered home becoming a hoard storehouse is a gradual one. Traumas and anger can slow down the normal organisation and sorting of belongings. It can start as ‘getting behind’. When someone gets far enough behind, dealing with it becomes daunting. For example, mail takes so much time to process that getting behind with sorting it can happen very quickly, as a result many people hoard mail.

Physical fitness and energy are important considerations. Many people are able to ‘just’ stay on top of it until they get old. With less energy the task of addressing the piles of ‘stuff’ can not only seem insurmountable, it may be physically impossible.

Tackling the hoard
The road back is slow and measured. Throughout, the most crucial part of tackling a hoard is the person themselves, not how much stuff there is. In serious cases, the first steps may not seem very important or even perceptible to the average person but they are to a hoarder; some insights might be:

  • I stopped buying things, it was only making it all worse.
  • I had to make a path for the plumber. When I let him in, I realised how awful it must look to him.
  • I was away on holiday and I thought how wonderful it was to be in an empty hotel room.

As with anything, acknowledging personal ownership of what is happening is the first step. The next is wanting help and being willing to accept it.

You can find more information about hoarding, including where to get support on the website www.compulsive-hoarding.org.

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