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Hoarding: New Science, Smart Coping

Even though they’re buried in their own junk, the hoarders on reality TV shows just seem in need of a couple more trash bags and storage bins to overcome their problem. But in truth, hoarding is a far deeper, more intractable disorder than that. An estimated one in 20 Americans is a serious hoarder and for the millions of spouses, children, friends and relatives who live with and love a hoarder, coping with this mental-health problem requires plenty of patience, understanding and even tough love.

New science reveals that hoarding is based in a person’s genetic makeup; it runs in families and has roots in the way a hoarder’s brain is wired. Brain imaging studies show that brain areas involved with emotions and thinking showed lower-than-average activity in hoarders, but become revved-up when they have to think about tossing some of their own possessions.

The good news: In one Boston University study, cognitive behavior therapy designed specifically for hoarders led to improvements for 70 percent of those who tried it. This type of short-term, solutions-based counseling helps hoarders make better decisions about acquiring and keeping objects. You can find a trained therapist through a local hoarding task force (more than 100 have formed in communities across the U.S. and Canada in recent years) or through organizations like the non-profit Children of Hoarders, Inc. (childrenofhoarders.com).  

The tough truth? With hoarding, change is slow, happens in small steps and is like doing the cha-cha – two steps forward, one step back. You can’t force it from the outside. If you live with a hoarder, or if a parent or close friend is hoarding, here’s how to nurture YOUR peace of mind as you help them: 

Identify a hoarding problem: Hoarding goes beyond clutter; it’s not the same as collecting (collectors love to display their beloved stuff – whether it’s baseball caps or silver spoons). It crosses the line from mere annoyance to trouble when hoarded objects take over living spaces so the hoarder and those around them can’t use rooms as they were meant to be used, when the clutter makes a home or apartment unsafe and when the sheer volume of stuff interferes with daily living and relationships.

Line up support--for you.  A local task force or hoarding organization such as Children of Hoarders can help you connect with others via online and in-person support groups. You’ll also find links to cleaning services; health care professionals who work with hoarders and their families; and real-world, been-there-done-that advice for dealing with challenging situations such as crisis cleaning when a hoarder’s home has become unsafe.

Stake out your territory. If you live with a hoarder, declare areas of your home off-limits for your beloved hoarder’s stuff. Firmly and gently defend your space; move stuff that isn’t yours or insist that the hoarder do it. You’ll feel better-organized and more serene. 

Understand a hoarder’s emotions. Every little thing in those stacks, piles, overflowing storage bins and jam-packed drawers matters a lot to a hoarder. Just thinking about getting rid of it stirs up fear, anxiety, guilt and anger. Let the hoarder know you understand how he or she feels. Building trust is the first step toward talking about how the hoarding affects you and your relationship as well as the hoarder’s daily life and safety.   

Know when and how to intervene. When a hoarder’s home becomes dangerous, it’s time to step in to remove health and safety hazards. Stay safe if you’re doing the work – wear gloves. For extreme situations you may even need a protective disposable jumpsuit and a respirator, so you don’t breathe in mold spores and animal droppings. Set time limits so you take breaks; go out for a meal and don’t feel too overwhelmed. 

Remember, although this is tough to do, you’re helping the hoarder achieve a younger RealAge by finding ways to improve his/her mental and physical health.