Overrun with stuff: Why ‘hoarders’ can’t let go
We all hold onto souvenirs. Perhaps it’s tickets stubs, our children’s first drawings or even decorative figurines. But behind the doors of thousands of homes across Canada, there are people who can’t part with anything, whose collections have taken over and in some cases, endangered their lives.
Most hoarders suffer silently, hiding their problem as best they can from neighbours. But occasionally, their compulsion leads to disastrous consequences.
Last fall, a massive fire in a Toronto high-rise that left dozens of people temporarily homeless was found to have started in an apartment packed with papers.
Last week, an elderly Quebec couple who lived with their grown daughter died after being found in their frigid, overstuffed home. Emergency workers had trouble entering the house, finding it filled with clutter, both inside and out.
Elaine Birchall, an Ottawa-based social worker who specializes in helping hoarders, says it’s too soon to say whether a member of the Quebec family was an actual hoarder. She says many people live in cluttered environments but aren’t technically hoarders. They may simply be having trouble managing their possessions because of mobility or memory issues.
A true hoarder, Birchall says, is someone who has assigned their possessions so much value that they refuse to part with them.
“Their relationship with their objects has become distorted,” she explained in a phone interview. “So my job is to help them to understand the underlying reasons for that distorted relationship and change their relationship to their things.”
A hoarder often has a love-hate relationship with their possessions, Birchall says. On the one hand, they consider their things “friends” that bring them comfort, making them feel safe and protected. On the other hand, they feel embarrassed and hate the realization that they’ve lost control.
“In both cases, they’re overwhelmed. One’s a happy overwhelmed, the other is unhappy,” she says.
Either way, holding on to the clutter is a hoarder’s way of coping with their stress or inner pain. An addict might turn to alcohol or drugs; a hoarder envelops themselves in “things.”
While hoarding is an intensely personal issue, it can be a public health issue as well. That’s why a number of cities across Canada have begun forming “task forces” to find and help people with the disorder.
Cheryl Perera, the director of community programs at the non-profit VHA Home HealthCare and the current chair of the Toronto Hoarding Coalition, says hoarders sometimes live in housing complexes where they can pose a fire risk to others around them.
They can also make pest control efforts futile, derailing even the most intensive bedbug strategy, for example.
It’s been estimated that one to two per cent of the population are hoarders. That means in Toronto alone, there are somewhere between 24,000 and 48,000 sufferers, most of them hiding their problem from those around them. The first difficulty, Perera says, is identifying them.
“It’s very challenging to find people who are hoarding because they tend to self-isolate,” she says.
So it’s sometimes EMS workers who find hoarders after they’ve been injured in their homes by their habit. Other times, it’s housing workers who notice a pest problem or lingering odour and make the discovery.
Yet, Birchall says, plenty of hoarders hide their problem well, living otherwise normal lives.
“Hoarders come from every social position, from those with autism, to those receiving social assistance, to professionals like physicians. I’m treating a practising physician right now,” she says.
Many hoarders also have mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, social phobia, dementia and very often, depression. Treating those issues won’t solve the hoarding problem, Birchall says; both conditions need their own treatment.
Other hoarders inherited their disorder.
“There is a definite genetic link with hoarding,” Birchall said, noting that a number of the chromosomes unique to hoarders have already been identified.
“It’s estimated that 84 per cent of hoarders have a first-degree relative who was a hoarder,” she says. Many of these were raised by hoarders and they’ve come to see the compulsion to hold onto things as “normal.”
The good news, Birchall says, is that hoarders can get better. It takes a long-term intervention, often many months of therapy, as well as teaching new behaviours and clutter management techniques.
“They can recover. Most can learn to monitor themselves and manage their compulsive need to save or acquire things. Most can do that,” she says.
“You’re never ‘cured’ but you can develop insight into why you hoard, and what are the triggers. They can learn to catch themselves sooner. They learn to keep themselves in good mental health so they don’t fall back into those behaviours and fall back into using hoarding to cope.”