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Helping Hoarders Takes Time, Patience

By Vanessa Orr

Dr. Norma Thomas

... But the fact is, between 2 and 6 percent of the nation’s population are considered to be hoarders, and many of them have been doing it for years.
“Hoarding isn’t any worse than it was years ago, but it is gaining more attention,” explained Norma Thomas, DSW, LSW, ACSW, the MSW program director at California University of Pennsylvania. “There may also be more hoarders out there because people are now living longer and statistics show that hoarding tends to increase as people get older.”
Not all hoarders are older; in fact, hoarding can start at a fairly young age. “Experts often discuss whether hoarding is a result of nature or nurture; of genetics versus environment,” Dr. Thomas said. “While there is no definitive research, there is a pretty high percentage of hoarders who have parents who are hoarders themselves.”
The reasons that people hoard are varied. Some begin hoarding in childhood and continue doing so all of their lives. Others begin to hoard as the result of a traumatic experience such as a divorce, death of a loved one, domestic violence, a child leaving, or any other grief or loss experience.
“Hoarding can also be the end stage of some types of mental health issues that remain undiagnosed such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), end-stage personality disorders or depression,” said Dr. Thomas. “It can also be the result of a cognitive impairment such as dementia, or sensory or physical deficits that limit a person’s ability to deal with his or her environment.”
Those who do not have the disorder may think that solving the problem is as simple as cleaning up a hoarder’s home, but this is far from the case. “Hoarding is different than having a messy house or collecting items that make sense,” Dr. Thomas explained. “Hoarding is collecting things that make no sense and can affect a person’s health and safety. Hoarders are not just willfully dirty; they are suffering from a disorder. And while it is something that can be treated, it does take time.”
For hoarders, it can often be traumatic to get rid of things, and this can be made even worse when their spaces are ‘cleaned’ without their involvement. “By the time that hoarders have come to the attention of law enforcement, the health department or their neighbors, the situation is really bad and people just want to come in and clean it all up, but this will only solve the problem for a minute,” said Dr. Thomas. “This type of intervention is not getting to the root cause of the hoarding, and in fact, can cause even more damage. Taking a hoarder’s things - what is basically their security - can cause the person to suffer a physical or psychological breakdown.”
In order to help a hoarder, it is important to realize that it took a long time for the person to get this way, and that it will take a long time to resolve the issue. “You have to develop a relationship with the individual first, and to be helpful and not hurtful,” said Dr. Thomas. “You need to want what is best for them, and to allow them to be in control as much as they can be.”
Determining why someone hoards can help lead to the proper treatment. If a person is suffering from depression, for example, therapy and medical intervention may help. Focusing a hoarder’s attention on other activities that do not involve ‘things,’ such as making new friends and socializing outside the home can sometimes make a difference, as can finding the proper outside resources to help those who have sensory or physical issues.
“When you can really pinpoint the reason that a person hoards, you have more success,” said Dr. Thomas. “Many hoarders do want to change; they just need some help.”

For more information, Dr. Thomas can be reached at (724) 938-1597 or thomas@calu.edu.

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