A hoarder is someone who has a compulsive need to purchase, acquire and save items that have little or no value. Often, this behavior takes an emotional, physical, social, financial and even legal toll on the person.
Although this defines who a hoarder is, the obsessive compulsive disorder from which a hoarder suffers is far more complicated. There are many factors that go into determining whether a person is a hoarder, the severity of the hoarding situation, and what causes hoarding.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple solution, either. However, knowledge is power, and understanding what hoarding entails is the first step to assisting your loved one. Below we’ll explore whether your loved one meets the definition of a hoarder, and what you can do to help.
Hoarding Vs. Collecting
Though the definitions of both a hoarder and a collector both involve acquiring items, that’s where any similarities end.
Hoarding is not collecting. Here’s why:
- Hoarders’ collections turn into clutter. Collectors, on the other hand, keep their items cataloged and well-organized. They take pride in displaying their items. Hoarders have a strong perceived need to keep items, despite their condition, and become extremely distressed at the thought of discarding them.
- Collecting does not impact living areas. In a collector’s house, you should have no trouble accessing any space. In a hoarder’s home, however, possessions aren’t organized and become piles of clutter that may block entrances and exits. Rooms also typically aren’t used for their intended purpose in a hoarder’s home.
- Isolation is common with hoarding. Collectors tend to enjoy showing off their collections. Hoarders tend to feel embarrassed or feel hopeless, and isolate themselves from family and friends.
You can read more about how to tell whether your loved one is a hoarder or a collector in our article, The Difference Between An Obsessive Collector And Hoarder.
While “hoarder” is a general term used to describe someone who has a compulsive need to keep items, there’s five stages of hoarding that help narrow down the severity of the disorder.
Level 1: In this stage, you may not be able to recognize that your loved one is a hoarder. The household environment is considered standard, but you may notice some clutter.
Level 2: In this stage, hoarding tendencies become more evident. You’ll notice less attention to housekeeping and more clutter that is beginning to overtake the home. Other things you may notice include:
- The loved one becoming more withdrawn from human interaction, and finding more comfort in belongings
- A major exit in the home blocked with belongings
- Some plumbing or electrical systems not fully functional
- Odors, or piled up dishes
Level 3: In this stage, there is no question hoarding is present. Clutter is overtaking the house, and hallways or stairwells likely are at least partially blocked. You also may notice:
- Broken HVAC systems, appliances and smoke detectors
- An excessive number of pets
- Possible structural damage
- At least one room not used for its intended purpose
- Hazardous substances in small quantities
- Heavily soiled areas and sanitation problems
Level 4: In this stage, the welfare of the resident is at a critical level. The home is dangerous, and likely include hazardous conditions such as mold, structural damage and bug infestations. Other things you’ll likely notice include:
- Excessive outdoor clutter
- Damaged walls and water-damaged floors
- Poor animal sanitation
- Several rooms cluttered and impassable
- Kitchen and bathrooms no longer functional
- Rotting and expired food
Level 5: This is the most critical stage. A hoarder is at rock bottom, and in addition to the items outlined in level 4, you may notice:
- No room used for its intended purpose
- Animals at risk
- Broken septic, electrical and plumbing systems
- Primitive sources used for heating and lighting
- Severe mold and infestations
Types Of Hoarding
Hoarding is often thought of as the extreme accumulation of belongings. However, the definition of a hoarder can get more specific by focusing on the type of hoarding disorder.
Object hoarders, for example, focus on acquiring certain types of items, such as:
- Books or magazines
While many people may collect these items, they do so in an orderly manner. Hoarders, on the other hand, have a substantial number of these items to the point where entrances are blocked and the items are not in good condition.
Another type of hoarding, called non-wasters, focuses on people who do not like to waste anything, even if items no longer work or are broken. Sometimes this includes specific types of items, such as containers that can be recycled, food (even expired), and bargains found at the store that usually end up in a pile and are rarely used.
One of the most disturbing types of hoarding is animal hoarding. This occurs when a person has a large number of animals, but fails to meet their basic needs, including food and clean water, an overall clean environment and veterinary care.
More information about these specific types of hoarding can be found in our article, Different Types of Hoarding, which also details one of the newest forms of hoarding, digital hoarding.
Considered an obsessive compulsive disorder, hoarding can be influenced or associated by a number of factors.
Risk factors include:
- Family history
- An experienced trauma
- Other mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression
Although hoarding is not considered to be an entirely genetic disorder, research has found there is some genetic predisposition involved.
Our article, What Causes Hoarding?, provides more information researchers have discovered about what’s behind hoarding and why it’s important to know the risk factors involved so that families can better understand the disorder affecting their loved one.
How You Can Help
Hoarding can be emotionally-charged and physically exhausting for all parties involved. You want to help, and if you recognize there may be a problem, it’s important to act now.
Seeking professional intervention, including mental health services, often is required to help manage a situation and help your loved one live a safe and healthy life. Getting professional help in the early stages or when symptoms first present is critical. This can help catch the disorder and minimize the negative effects of hoarding on the individual.
Professional hoarder cleaning services also can assist, especially considering going through a hoarder’s home can be overwhelming and even dangerous. A specialized hoarding cleaning service will coordinate strategies and resources, and provide compassionate support.
A hoarding clean-up plan will include:
- Assessment of the situation, including whether there are any safety issues
- Formation of a cleaning strategy, designating what work will be done, when and by whom
- Coordination of equipment and supplies, including any additional services needed such as contractors for repairs and trucks for large waste removal
- Implementation of the cleaning strategy, with the end goal of restoring the home to where it’s safe, organized and livable
Professional hoarder cleaning services can be especially helpful in extreme hoarding situations where legal directives have been handed down by a municipality, and a quick clean-up is required.
While most recognize the definition of a hoarder to be someone who has a compulsive need to acquire and save items, especially items with little or no value, this mental health disorder is must more extensive and complicated.
If a hoarding situation is impacting your loved one, it’s important to act right away to prevent the situation from worsening and ensure the hoarder is living in a safe and healthy environment.