The dangers of compulsive hoarding

LEM Image 026This week I came across a very tragic story about an elderly lady who has died as a result of her problems with compulsive hoarding.

She had been reported missing by her husband who had feared she’d wandered off as a result of being disoriented by a stroke. After four months of searching by police she was eventually found under a pile of rubbish and household clutter in their own home and her husband didn’t realise.

As a professional organiser I am sometimes contacted by family members on ways to help a relative or friend with this problem. While I can help direct a clean-up, often is the case where this can only be done once psychological interventions are already in place as this is a delicate and fragile problem which requires patience and compassion to result in a successful outcome for all involved. It is worthwhile mentioning at this point that there are professional organisers who actually specialise in this area, and should this be an issue for you or someone you love and you want to help, I suggest you only seek out a professional organiser who does specialise in this area. There are many reasons for this however there are a few I want to highlight that go above and beyond the organiser’s bedside manner and level of experience.

  • The situation may require what is termed as “Collaborative Therapy for Clutter Management” where a psychologist works together with the client, family members and the professional organiser. If an organiser is not used to this, or doesn’t have enough relevant experience you may have issues down the line.
  • The professional organiser needs to be set-up properly to handle such a clean-up, including having a team of organisers who is used to this aspect of organising. If there are hazards in the home environment, they need to have the right insurances in place to cover both the client/s and the organisers on the job.
  • The professional organiser should know how to do a proper safety assessment of the property before organising commences, and have the relevant safety equipment for the team including face-masks, gloves and boots. This may be confronting to the client and again has to be handled delicately
    and up front.
  • The professional organiser should have made sure that all involved in their team have criminal clearances. The reason for this is due to the amount of clutter being dealt with. Often is the case that money, valuables and sensitive documents may be uncovered during the process. A system should be established and explained to the team up front before clean-up on how to deal with such items. Even if the organisers can be trusted, they need to be clear on how to instruct any relatives or friends who may volunteer to help the team and offer to ‘take care of’ anything valuable. All involved in clean-up should follow the same procedures and records kept.

When I consult with clients, or give talks on de-cluttering, I often remind people of the dangers of letting clutter get out of control. It is especially relevant when we consider our elderly who, even if they don’t have hoarding tendencies may more often than not be unable to help themselves with some physical aspects of keeping house due to health and mobility problems as they age.

It is also important to know the difference and not assume someone has an issue with hoarding when a person could just be going through a temporary tough time, such as a new baby, divorce, job loss or bereavement and who normally prefer to be living in manageable environment. Often just offering a ‘temporary’ helping hand in other ways is all that is needed,  however, there are other psychological conditions such as depression which can lead to hoarding and this is why if you’re not sure, take time to observe and only act when you feel things are getting out of hand. Check out the links at the end of this article to guide you.

Despite the obvious psychological reasons action should be taken with excess clutter, there are a variety of other health and safety reasons:

  • clutter is fuel for a fire and can block exits and entrances if there was a fire;
  • clutter can cause a person to trip and fall and reduces mobility;
  • clutter prevents the ability to keep an environment clean allowing mould to grow, dust to accumulate and vermin such as dust mites, roaches, spiders and even mice and rats to breed (note – these creatures also leave behind their droppings);
  • clutter affects air quality and ventilation, contributing to allergies, respiratory disorders and other
    health problems;
  • clutter prevents the ability to maintain or run appliances safely, consider the impact of clutter falling on heating appliances, stoves, boiling pans, fraying or covering dangerous electrical cords;
  • clutter in the bathroom can lead to the use of expired medications, other medicines, bandages etc. may not be locatable when needed; again, should an electrical appliance such as a hairdryer tumble and make contact with water it can have devastating consequences;
  • clutter can prevent medical staff from accessing a person in need quickly and safely, it may even prevent the removal of a person in need if they cannot get a gurney, wheelchair or any other medical equipment in or out of the home;
  • clutter can hide devices such as phones and keys, essential in any type of emergency;
  • clutter in fridges and pantries affect food quality and together with dirty sinks, and cooking utensils contribute to obvious links to digestive illnesses;
  • necessary paperwork may not be attended to in time, bills become unpaid which can lead to services being disconnected. Obviously if the phone is disconnected access to help when needed is cut; should power be cut, access to heating and cooling in extreme weather conditions and any ability to cook food
    is affected;
  • some substances hoarded such as paint and other chemicals may become hazardous if spilled, or if containers rust or are breached in other ways allowing dangerous fumes to become air-borne. Mixed with other substances they become a deadly cocktail in other ways whether that be flammable or corrosive;
  • if clutter spills out into the gardens of these homes then liability, safety and health issues to others visiting or living near the property becomes an issue that may become a council or legal concern. It’s worth noting that some service providers will not allow their employees to enter premises which they consider dangerous.

As you can see, if you look at the bigger picture with regard to out of control clutter, I’m sure you will see that it is no different to when body weight gets out of control. If steps aren’t taken early, clutter, not unlike weight gain, can have serious consequences for your physical and mental health, and impact on your quality of life and of the lives of those you love and of those you may need to assist you.

If you feel you know of someone who may have a problem with hoarding and want to know how to help them, it may be an idea to do your research first before gently bringing the situation to their attention. A good place to start is the ‘Institute for Challenging Disorganization‘ (Formerly NSGCD) notably their Fact Sheet page where you can learn about such things as Causes of Chronic Disorganization; Tips for Communicating with the Chronically Disorganised; how to go about sourcing Collaborative Therapy for Clutter Management and what to look for in a professional organiser who specialises in this area of organising.

The the ‘Institute for Challenging Disorganization’ Fact Sheets are free of charge to both public consumers and professionals, although they do require that you provide some details for their data-base to help them keep track of their fact sheets.

I’m sure if you read the following article, you will agree it was a tragic and unnecessary situation which could have been avoided with the correct intervention. My hope is that my article may be able to help start the intervention conversation to avoid such tragedies in the future.

Article Link: Hoarder Buried Dead Beneath Her Belongings

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