Many of us either know a collector or have collections of our own. Whether it’s stamps, salt shakers, porcelain dolls, seashells, or any number of things, many people start collections because they love the object they’re collecting, or they see it as an investment and hope their collection will increase in value. The many disparate categories of collectibles from common to seldom heard of can make it seem eccentric or bizarre at times, but overall it’s commonly regarded as an innocent and well understood hobby.
But there exists a line when collecting moves from an innocuous hobby, to excessive, and then tips over the edge into hoarding. And when does hoarding go from a minor psychological issue to a health hazard?
It is only in recent time that researchers have examined the hoarding condition, which is now designated as a distinct form of mental illness by the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In it, hoarding is described as a pattern of behavior characterized by excessive acquisition, an unwillingness or inability to discard any object, thinking they might need it sometime in the future.
Between 2 and 6% of adults suffer from the disorder of hoarding, and is much more common among older adults. Adults aged from 55 to 94 years old are affected by the hoarding disorder at a rate three times higher than that of adults 34 to 44. And the condition tends to present chronically, beginning when young and worsening with age when left untreated.
Multiple factors cause hoarding behaviors. Genetic makeup, past emotional or physical traumas, and changes in the brain can all play a role. Economic stress can also contribute to hoarding behavior. For many older people who grew up during, or in the shadow of, things like the Great Depression, wartime rationing, or other periods, the idea of wasting things can be anxiety inducing and make them feel guilt. Additionally, many products made and sold today are designed to be disposable or not last long, and straining against this “throwaway culture” can make seniors inadvertently hang on to things they shouldn’t.
Hoarding can strain family relationships and friendships as it progresses. The state of their home and their obsession with objects can cause them to isolate, and the attachment to the objects will often make them unwilling to allow others in, even when they need help. The accumulation of things may create unsanitary or unsafe conditions, making homes difficult to navigate, clean, invite insect and rodent infestation, or create fire hazards.
The first step in recognizing hoarding disorders is knowing what to look for. Signs like disorganized piles or stacks of items, especially seemingly useless ones like newspapers, clothes, or books. Possessions crowding into and cluttering hallways and walking spaces. Food or trash building up to excessive and unsanitary levels. Conflict with or anger towards anyone trying or suggesting to reduce and remove clutter. Difficulty organizing items.
The first step in helping is not to pass judgment. There is an underlying reason for the hoarding, and understanding it is the first step in making your loved one not feel threatened.