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Boomer Bytes #56: Hoarding: Tripping Over Our Stuff

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Hoarding – Tripping Over Our Stuff

By Steve Canipe

Feb. 6, 2015. Looking for a growth industry? If you are you might want to remember two words: boomers and hoarding. What does this mean, you might ask.

On the television cable network called A&E there is a show called “Hoarders.” There is a mental disorder that leads to hoarding. It seems to be related to both anxiety and also obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Many people seem to be prone to this disease but several recent articles in the popular press have focused on its prevalence among older folks – another way to say focused on boomers! (http://articles.philly.com/2014-10-22/entertainment/55284960_1_hoarders-hoarding-disorder-beanie-baby)


This article focuses on words from Matt Paxton, the television host from the “Hoarders” program. Certainly not every boomer falls into this category but estimates are that in the general population somewhere between 2-5 percent of the population falls into the hoarder category. In some places like Maine there are estimates that as many as 8 % are hoarders. In Alleghany County Pennsylvania there are estimated to be nearly 19 thousand hoarders. http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/07/14/Hoarding-reclassification-shines-light-on-disorder/stories/201407140065

Beginning in May 2013 the hoarder was considered a separate condition being reclassified from the general OCD classification. This may help some individuals receive help for the specifics of the hoarding disorder.

The real question is what causes this to happen? I suspect we all have seen or read news reports about people keeping hundreds of dogs or cats in their home. Obviously they started out loving the animals but just kept getting more and more; to the extent that the animals suffered. The condition does not just manifest itself with animals. It can be papers, magazines, tools, just about anything. Including some things that most of us find deplorable.

The following quote was taken from the Philly.com website listed earlier. Paxton from the “Hoarder” show said “We had one house that had two feet of spider webs and the house was completely full of roaches. They would climb up into the spider webs and literally rain roaches on top of you. You have to be fully protected. We’re in full Hazmat gear. You have to have your skin covered. The biggest issue is dead animals and urine and fecal matter. We find tons of fecal matter. We found 18,000 pounds of used adult diapers in a woman’s house.”

People hoard for a number of reasons. Some may believe that the item(s) they are saving will be useful or increase in value in the future. Some save things because the item has some sentimental value; maybe it is too unique or valuable to discard. Others may elect to keep things in a cluttered pile because they cannot decide where to store or file the item. There are all sorts of reason.

If the above reasons sounded sort of reasonable to you, then you may be a collector. Many of us collect things – Santa figurines for Christmas, Nativity scenes, books, old tax returns. And the list can go on and on. There is a qualitative difference between collectors and hoarders – but it may be closer than we think…especially if we are the collector.

A collector places great value on their collections. They will want to display their treasures and share their passion with others. Collectors will want to talk with others about their treasures. I have a great collection of vintage cameras – from Kodak Brownies, putting photography into the hands of the masses, to the Sony Mavica, one of the first digital cameras. I’ve various single lens reflex cameras, early Polaroid instant cameras, and other point and shoot ones from various manufacturers. I display them in my office on shelves so that you can see them all. My wife thinks they are hard to dust and I suppose they are!! But I am not hoarding them!!

Many hoarders are in denial that there is anything wrong with their habits. It is a fine line between normal collecting and hoarding – probably closer than collectors would like to admit. You will remember that about 10 thousand folks are turning 65 every day. Using the 2-5 percent this is a lot of new hoarders happening every day. So that is why the hoarder clean-up is important. Using the smaller number you will get 200 new hoarders per day or about 73 thousand per year! This is scary since some of us are probably in that category.

Ok now do you think maybe you are a hoarder? – what are the symptoms that you need to look for? Maybe you have been seeing some of these in yourself but maybe in an older relative or even your spouse or partner. The traditional listing of symptoms to watch for is provided by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/hoarding-basics) is: 1) inability to throw away possessions; 2) severe anxiety when attempting to discard items; 3) great difficulty categorizing or organizing possessions; 4) indecision about what to keep or where to put things; 5) distress, such as feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed by possessions; 6) suspicion of other people touching items; 7) obsessive thoughts and actions: fear of running out of an item or of needing it in the future; checking the trash for accidentally discarded objects; and 8) functional impairments, including loss of living space, social isolation, family or marital discord, financial difficulties, health hazards.

I have sort of had some experience with at least a near hoarder in my life. One of my male relatives sort of fit that bill. He only fit one of the eight categories – number one. He was unable to thrown things away. I always put this down to him growing up in the Depression when there was a real reason to keep things – a person just never knew when or where items could be found. So maybe it was not hoarding but frugalness that he displayed. But maybe it was a touch of the hoarding nature. I wonder, does this trait run in families? In other words is it genetic?

On Tucson.com website recently there was an article on hoarding (http://tucson.com/news/local/hoarding-problem-may-explode-as-population-ages/article_e00ab5e4-33c0-5331-9a5a-899429e5d3ee.html) One of the things that was noted in this article was that the tendency was seen early in life, maybe as early as 10 or 11. It does get more pronounced later in life. The average age of those seeking help for the condition is 50.

The Tucson article noted that there is no such thing as a typical hoarder. It notes that the house does not necessarily look like a pig sty. It may be pristine but in order to move around one might need to shimmy between shelves holding the treasures. This means that our view (at least mine) of an older person living in filth with feet of magazines and newspapers or dirty adult diapers strewn about is one type of hoarder but not the only one.

What to do if you find or know a hoarder? Well since many hoarders feel isolated and comfortable with their “stuff,” maybe we could do more wellness checks on our neighbors and friends. By visiting we are letting them know that they are important and involving them in daily life we can help remove the isolation. Of course in severe cases, professional help should be called in from local councils on aging or even with the health department or law officers.

If materials are going to be removed, it should be expected that anxiety will definitely rise – the familiar is gone and along with the stuff the comfort level goes down. Compassion is needed; not anger or being upset. If the hoarder is a relative, this is especially important as there are lots of other interpersonal dynamics in play. It could be a parent, sibling, or even a spouse who is the hoarder.

Do you know someone who is a hoarder? Do you do wellness drop-ins on neighbors and friends? We probably need to be “our brother’s keepers” and look out for them. If you are a hoarder and are reading this, I say blessings to you. If you would, please reach out to others for help. Many, probably most of your acquaintances, would be more than willing to help. Some of you may remember Joey the Clown from Channel 9, WSOC-TV and his famous sign off – he said “Be nice, cause all we have in this old world is each other.”

If you know of community resources, please share with the readers. Either post them below or send them to me via email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com. If you have stories you feel as if you can share, please do this as well. This is a potential condition that we may all be in danger of developing as we age.