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Most people experience bemusement, confusion or even disgust when witnessing a hoarding scene. They throw up their arms and label this incomprehensible behaviour as “sick”. Sometimes these same folks will humour themselves regarding their excessive personal practices even though they may suffer for years and years or even perish as an upshot of their situation. Television depicts clutter as a consequence of our busy lifestyles rather than a symptom of a more thorny problem of personal and public safety. Surely a more enlightened and compassionate approach is to treat a person who hoards as someone with a possible genetic predisposition or obsessive/compulsive condition. We don't want to rule out that the individual was just overwhelmed with severe disorganisation with his or her domestic matters. Previously thought as a subtype of OCD, only 15-30% of people who hoard will have OCD (Birchall). “Most often it (hoarding) has a life of its own without the presence of obsessive-compulsive symptoms” (Rowa).

Regarding O/C disorders I admit I can relate to that a bit. I remember worrying a lot about what my parents would say or do when I got into trouble. It was only, later on, I must have realised it didn't make a lot of sense to obsess; since suppressing or avoiding the thought always seemed to make it come back stronger. On reflection, I realised that I hoarded worries into the foundation of my life experience. I learned that depending on the theme, obsessions might take many forms. Concerns about cleanliness, perfectionism or the possibility of leaving the doors unlocked can be worrisome. Aggressive thoughts of harming others, concerns about religion and morality, or upsetting sexual thoughts can be disturbing. Some sufferers will preoccupy themselves with lucky numbers, colours, house numbers, or license plates. Although we all find something with which to obsess at times, it's the anxiety we want to escape from to find temporary relief from obsessions by engaging in activities that we call compulsions. Compulsions are behaviours we repeat over and over. They are not pleasurable to perform and are impossible to resist. The list of examples includes washing, checking, counting, repeating actions or thoughts, need to ask or confess, to order and arrange things, repeating words, prayers to oneself, and also hoarding.

I have collections. No problem. But for a few (about 4/1000 and more females than males), collection numbers compound over time. Hoarders will gather more items and animals for which they can discard or provide care. Problems begin when gathered stuff reaches a critical mass: odours, debris, complaints from neighbours, cessation of water and electricity services, and finally city building inspectors, fire and police. At this point, the owner or tenant, more often an older adult, is faced with a loss of independence; especially where someone did not step in before things got out of hand. Sometimes uninformed family members threaten forced clean-outs but the afflicted hoarder then just relocates and repeats the behaviour, leaving a trail of hatred and resentment. For family members, it is not easy, but somehow trust has to be established for a process of change to take place, and that change often will be only in baby steps. Sensationalising hoarding does little to address the inherent need for understanding and professional intervention.

Elaine Birchall M.S.W. managed the creation of a report: “No Room to Spare” Ottawa’s Community Response to Hoarding Plan

In it she shares her vision, care approach, and resources demonstrating a sensitivity to issues of hoarding. She lists the following favourable actions of workers as noted by her clients:

more homemaker services made available
cleaning companies employed
long term care assistance
non-judgmental support from family members who recognize that hoarding is more than they can handle by themselves
getting trained support workers and professionals involved
list of care providers who are knowledgeable about hoarding


Karen Rowa, Ph.D., C.Psych. Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre- St. Joseph's Healthcare, Hamilton
Elaine Birchall's website Toronto 647-967-0100 | Ottawa 613-492-0700

Understanding Hoarding


April 15, 2013


James Kershaw


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Jim Kershaw says

April 15, 2013

I notice pick up trucks will stop and grab items that house owners have discarded. I wonder how many of those drivers are actually recycling.

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