Last fall, firefighters responding to a 9-1-1 call found they were unable to get inside the one-story home to fight the fire because the entrances were blocked by a mountain of debris that they couldn’t get past. After using a chainsaw to remove the front door, the firefighters climbed over trash piled several feet high. Once inside, though, they realized that the mass of clutter made it just too dangerous to pursue. The homeowner, trapped inside by his own belongings and unable to get out of the house to safety, died.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first disaster in this community brought on by hoarding. A few months earlier, another home was destroyed by fire. This time, however, the resident survived. He’d been living in a tent in his backyard, but his house had become too full to live in.
What is Hoarding?
The Mayo Clinic defines hoarding as “the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them.” These items range from papers to clothing, from garbage to animals. In severe cases, these “excessive collections” fill rooms, hallways, countertops and stairways. They take over bathtubs and beds. And they endanger the lives of all who live there and potentially their neighbors.
What’s the Danger?
The Mayo Clinic lists the following as just some of the complications that hoarding can create:
Health risks due to living in unsanitary conditions
Increased risk of falls
So why don’t hoarders—or their families—just toss out their stuff? It’s not that simple. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Joti Samra, many hoarders “have an obsessive need to collect despite the negative impact on their financial situation, their health, their own living environment and often their social and occupational function.” Removing the hoarded materials can be traumatic and may make the hoarder’s behavior even worse.
While it’s not clear what causes hoarding, there are some risks factors, such as a family history of hoarding and a history of alcohol abuse. There is also help available. If you know someone who has an inability to discard items, collects seemingly unnecessary items and has an excessive attachment to possessions, encourage the person to write down the symptoms and talk to a doctor. It’s not a matter of judging their lifestyle or their home; it’s about their safety.
How to Help a Hoarder
Oxford University Press has published “The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Service Professionals,” providing suggestions for officials dealing with a compulsive hoarder whose living situation is potentially dangerous.
One bit of advice includes to use respectful language—avoiding derogatory terms such as “junk,” “trash” or even “hoarding” — and to focus the conversation on the concern for personal safety and safety issues, such as blocked exits or frayed electrical cords.