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Column: Understanding hoarding

Remember those hoarder television shows? They were once very popular. Who could believe that people actually live that way? So why did so many people watch them?

Here’s the truth: those programs only showed people at the extreme end of a long spectrum of hoarders. The programs were great for ratings, but quite short on the facts.

At the most common and least extreme part of the spectrum, hoarders are people who have an abundance of items they don’t need, and have difficulty parting with them.

According to psychologist Max Banilivy, an educator with a specialty in behavior and wellness, hoarding, especially at the earliest stages, is common and treatable.

Can hoarding also be serious?  Absolutely. At its most severe, it’s an accident waiting to happen.  Hoarders are often in danger of falling — due to their tenuous navigation of obstacles — or are in danger of causing a fire — due to flammable clutter near burners.  

But first, let’s look at who is considered a hoarder and who is not. People with Hoarding Disorder are different from collectors or clutterers.

A “collector’s” possessions tend to represent a theme or interest, a hobby perhaps, that may have gotten a bit out of control. Collectors keep their items somewhat organized, even if they have vast quantities of “things.”

A “clutterer” may have too many possessions and they may be quite disorganized. However, they are generally sequestered in designated areas such as a garage, or a portion of a room. They usually don’t take over the entire living space, and every once in a while, the clutterer will tidy up, only to see the clutter return.

But a hoarder’s possessions are not organized and at worst, they can take over the entire living space, leaving no safe path to walk and often no place to engage in normal domestic activities, such as sitting, eating a meal, or finding a place to read or watch television. It becomes a problem to the point where it interferes with normal functioning, such as socializing or being able to work effectively.

In the early stages, similar to collecting and cluttering, a friend or family member might be able to help them better organize their possessions or even “cull the herd.” Engaging a person in the earliest stages has the best chance of success.

Someone with a need to hold on to meaningless items can be gently questioned and encouraged to discard them. Or they can be questioned about useless items recently bought or acquired.

Helping to keep the amount of stuff from escalating is important, because as the possessions escalate and take over the space, the problems become more complicated.

At this point resistance is a key component — meaning that hoarders generally will not seek help and just want everyone involved to leave them alone.

They’re embarrassed and secretive if they know it’s a problem. If they don’t see it as a problem, they won’t understand the fuss outsiders are making, which may lead to hostility or withdrawal. Supportive and non-judgmental offers of assistance continue to be the best solution at this stage. Mental health intervention is encouraged.

As hoarding becomes more emotionally challenging, engaging the hoarder is a long-term and complex proposition. The possessions feel like a part of them, and refusal to part with any of their things is common.

This may lead to isolation from family, friends and mental health providers who become routinely denied access to their home. Along with papers, clothing, and bric-a-brac, hoarders have been known to keep rotted food, waste, and excessive numbers of animals.

Unfortunately, at this point where they are endangering themselves, more direct action may be needed beyond mental health practitioners. Locating and enlisting family members can help, but the hoarder may reject them.

Community partnerships with municipal workers, police and medical personnel may be indicated, but this is rare and only when the hoarder is endangered.

One of the most notorious cases of hoarding was Homer and Langley Collyer, brothers who amassed books, furniture, musical instruments and so many items that no one else could enter their New York City home.

They were both found dead in their home in 1947 after remaining indoor for decades. It’s believed that one of the brothers was killed by his possessions collapsing on him. The country was shocked to learn that people were living in such conditions.

While there are many people with hoarding tendencies (don’t we all know someone?), according to the American Psychiatric Association, Hoarding Disorder (at its most extreme) occurs in an estimated 2 to 6 percent of the population. It’s three times more common among older adults, 55-94 years old, and tends to be more prevalent in men.  

Shelter Island (which has the highest percentage of retirees in New York State, with over 30 percent older adults) may be on the higher end of the hoarding statistics.

It’s important that we realize that a hoarder is emotionally challenged and should not be stigmatized or treated like a nuisance or a person deliberately attempting to blight the community.

In many of my columns, I refer to our Shelter Island social worker, and this is no exception. Lucille Buergers can be reached at 631-749-8807 or by email at [email protected]. If you feel that your cluttering has gotten out of control, Ms. Buergers can assess how best to help.

Or if you have a friend or family member and are concerned about their living situation, Ms. Buergers may be able to assist.

Similarly, Laurie Fanelli, the Senior Services director at 631-749-1059, has extensive knowledge of this condition and has helped many hoarders and family members. For both of these professionals, all calls are free and confidential.

Our island is a beautiful community where everyone should be valued. Yet we’re not immune to the problems that affect the world beyond us, in this case hoarding.

Exploitive television shows don’t solve problems. Instead, becoming educated to the continuum of hoarding and how to be helpful, can only contribute to the well-being of us all.

Nancy Green is a retired social worker and a member of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance, along with Lucille Buergers, Jim Colligan, Laurie Fanelli, Trish Gallagher and Bonnie Stockwell.