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Hoarding Disorder: Recognizing The Syndromes Of Hoarding
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Hoarding Disorder: Recognizing the Syndromes Of Hoarding

There is a difference between having a hoarding disorder and being unorganized. The features of each may seem similar but the motives behind the clutter are vastly different.

Hoarders have a compulsive disorder that is distinguished by three basic criteria:

  1. Hoarders find it very hard to give anything up. They have difficulty discarding things.
  2. A hoarder’s living space is filled beyond capacity with what to others is meaningless stuff -- stuff people who do not have the hoarding disorder would simply discard.
  3. Because the living space is filled with piles of the things they can’t let go of, their home becomes difficult to maneuver, and depending on what is hoarded or how things are hoarded, a health and safety hazard, or fire trap.

Disorganized people, on the other hand, can let go of the things they have laying about. They’re just looking for time to go through it all to decide what to keep and what to discard.

The definition of hoarding is the collection of possessions in large numbers and the inability or failure to relieve themselves of these items which appear inconsequential or of little value to other people. We are not talking about Grandma’s Hummel collection, but we are talking about how she tends to keep every piece of junk mail for the past five years or hoards food like we were still in the Great Depression.

While a hoarder can be identified at any age, a large percentage of those who hoard are in their elder years. The proverbial elderly woman with 57 cats is a recognizably common type of hoarder. Or the little old man who has shear walls of newspapers, books, and other reading materials stacked to the ceilings in every room of his apartment or house. With living spaces crammed with hoarded materials, it is hard to maneuver a way through the rooms via winding paths barely wide enough to fit through. Sadly, I’ve even been in homes where the tiny pathways weren‘t clear either and I was forced to either step on top of things or move them out of my way. Where are we? I thought, the Amazon Jungle?

Commonly hoarded items include (but are not limited to):

  • Unnecessary paper materials of any kind including newspapers, books, junk mail, greeting cards received, and old bills. This is a health and safety issue and serious fire hazard.
  • Food - which often leads to unhealthy living conditions and illness due to the consumption of expired and inedible foods
  • Clothing - it is difficult for a clothes hoarder to discard even clothes that they won’t wear anymore, whether due to weight gain or loss or wear and tear. This syndrome can be further exacerbated by compulsive or impulsive shopping offering more items to hoard.
  • Animals - a pet or two or even three can be handled by members of any household. But people who hoard animals have way too many for the space in which they live. The environment can turn very unhealthy very quickly. You’ve seen the footage where animal control personnel go to a home where there are a multitude of cats and dogs and other pets. The smell is overwhelming, feces everywhere, litter boxes overflowing with waste, open cans of pet food all over the place, and the animals themselves are often malnourished and filthy. It’s simply not healthy for humans or their pets.
  • Small supplies that are useful such as paperclips, twist ties, rubber bands, plastic and paper bags, envelopes, boxes, packing materials, containers, greeting cards or un-useful such as old medicine bottles, used light bulbs, empty bottles, used candles that can’t be lighted, broken appliances, etc.
  • Staples such as sugar, salt, napkins, soap of all kinds.
  • Jewelry, picture frames, and chachkas
  • Any combination(s) of the above

The Someday Syndrome

One of the reasons a hoarder may hold onto something is that they think they may need it someday. More often than not, that day never comes. And if it does come, it would take a super hoarder to know exactly where to find it buried in the piles of stuff on top of it or otherwise in the way. Thus, it is uncommon for the item to be unburied and actually used when the time comes.

How the Clutter Builds

Another syndrome of hoarding is the lack of organization in the piles that have accumulated. Often hoarders see each piece of paper, clothing, or other things they hoard as unique and having special assignment or attachment. These are their treasures and each treasure is important to them in its own way. Therefore, they do not usually understand that their things can be put into categories and stored in a more appropriate way.

The Actual Value of It All

The value the hoarder places on their possessions escapes those who do not hoard things. This is the hardest part of trying to understand a hoarder’s intent and motivation. Family members can be easily frustrated and embarrassed by the behavior of the hoarder, the mounds of clutter, and their living conditions. And many hoarders may end up in virtual seclusion from a lack of visitors who are put off by either the clutter or the hoarder who does not want visitor’s to see their home environment.


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