How do you tell a hoarder from an enthusiastic collector? Hoarders collect things but collecting is not the same as hoarding. It is considered hoarding when things have accumulated to such a degree that it hampers proper use of a room and/or poses a safety risk. Hoarding is more properly defined as the acquisition of and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of little value. If you suggest getting rid of any of it the person reacts with fear or anger. Worse, if you do anything about it, like clean up while they are gone, you have made an egregious error and a breach of trust.
Some people have grown up in homes that were chronically overflowing with miscellaneous possessions and this was accepted as normal. Some of you may have cringed at the thought of bringing friends into your home because you knew your home was really far from normal. Very often it is one parent that is the hoarder and the other one accepts the situation in order to keep the peace. In other situations you notice that your aging parent is hanging on to inconsequential things that they normally would have thrown out such as junk mail and you wonder why. In both cases the parents seem to lack insight into their situation and are unaware that this could be a problem for anyone else.
Some people who were collectors because of a hobby begin to lose control of the accumulations as they age. In fact, what was a mild problem can become more full-blown and noticeable with age. They leave everything out in the open as a reminder, believing that if they put things away they would forget about them. You visit your mother and notice that the dining room table is layered with many months’ accumulation of mail. A lot of it is junk mail but you also notice that there are bills that have not been opened or even bills that were paid twice. You ask if you can help her go through this pile and throw some of it away and the response is fear. You ask a few questions and learn that she worries that she might throw out something that is important or she thinks she might want to use that credit card offer someday/maybe. You realize she has lost the ability to make distinctions.
Some people become pack-rats from excess buying. I have helped clear out homes where there were rooms full of stashes of unopened purchases…piles of them. They were acquired from shopping trips to the mall, mail order catalogs, internet shopping, and phone solicitations. For the people with this kind of hoarding it’s the shopping not the utilizing that provides the thrill of the kill. The unfortunate thing about it is that they can’t turn it off. They may go into debt over their heads in the pursuit of the relief for this need. Often, they hide the receipts for their purchases from their spouses, and possibly from themselves. What I have found most unfortunate is that when you try to help them recover some of their expenses by selling these items, they bring in next to nothing. If others want the items at all, they want them at bargain prices. In some cases the best I’ve been able to do is to get a tax deduction for them by providing a slip of estimated value to be signed by a receiver at Goodwill. As with all forms of hoarding, this compulsive shopping/acquiring behavior is beyond the person’s capacity to control. What is needed here is the family’s love and support for this person, some professional help from the medical and/or counseling field, and possibly someone trained as an organizer to work with people in this kind of situation.