Early one morning in October 2011, a man died in a fire in his mother’s Vancouver home. Firefighters were unable to reach the man, and he was unable to escape, because of boxes and other debris where blocked the doors and windows. In the end, it took a team trained in high-angle rescue just to recover his body. Firefighters called it one of the worst cases of hoarding they’d ever seen.
Vancouver officials launched a pilot program in May 2012 and by May 2013 reported handling more than 200 cases of hoarding. Hoarding is a very real and relevant issue.
What is hoarding?
The Mayo Clinic defines hoarding as the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Hoarding can also be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but many people who hoard don’t have other OCD-related symptoms.
It’s important to note that hoarding is different from collecting. The difference lies in how the items are displayed. People who have collections will search out specific items, organize the collections, and display the collections carefully. People who hoard will typically save random items and/or items that have seemingly no real value to non-hoarders. They will also display them haphazardly in their home, creating unsanitary and dangerous conditions.
When most people think of the term “hoarding”, they think of those affected hoarding items. People typically hoard items because they believe that the item will have future value, or the item has some emotional significance attached to it. For example, the item can remind the person of a beloved family member, friend or pet. The hoarded items can also make the person feel safer and more secure.
It is not just inanimate objects that people hoard, however. People may also hoard animals. Animals may be confined inside, so they can be concealed more easily. Animals in hoarding conditions can be discovered by a veterinarian, but many hoarded animals are not taken to the vet because of their large numbers and the expense involved.
In January of this year 45 dogs were seized from a Victoria-area animal hoarder. One of the dogs was found dead, but the rest survived, although many were in bad condition. There were a number of pregnant moms, and nine puppies. The dogs were taken into SPCA care. In June of this year, 19 cats and kittens were found in distress in Tahsis, B.C., suffering from a range of medical issues, including wounds, lesions, ear mites, internal parasites, ocular discharge, fleas and diarrhea.
In most jurisdictions, the maximum number of dogs allowed is 2-3. For example, in North Vancouver, the limit is 3 dogs, in Burnaby; the limit is just 2 dogs (over the age of four months). Animal hoarders typically go over this limit many times.
What causes hoarding?
While hoarding can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, or economic status, it’s not clear what causes hoarding behavior, however the condition is far more likely to affect those with a family history of hoarding, so genetics and upbringing are likely among the triggering factors.
There are other risk factors and features about hoarding in addition to family history and genetics, including -
1. Stressful life events – some people develop hoarding after an experiencing a stressful life event that they had difficulty coping with, such as the death of a family member.
2. A history of alcohol abuse
3. Social isolation – people who hoard are typically socially withdrawn and isolated. Hoarding can also increase social isolation.
What are some symptoms to watch out for?
If you suspect that a loved one might have issues with hoarding, you can ask them the following questions to get a better idea of how serious the situation is.
Do you avoid throwing things away because you might need them later, or because they have an emotional significance?
How often do you acquire or keep things you don’t have space for?
How would it make you feel if you had to discard some of your things?
Does clutter in your home keep you from using rooms for their intended purpose?
Does clutter in your home affect your family members?
Does it take you a long time to perform daily tasks because of clutter?
Do you have so many pets you can’t care for them properly?
Have others encouraged you to seek professional help?
Do you have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or a sibling, who is a pack rat?
Are you currently being treated for any other medical conditions, including mental illness?
There are different treatment options for hoarding:
Psychotherapy – Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the most common form of psychotherapy used to treat hoarding. CBT helps the hoarder:
-Learn to categorize and organize possessions
-Improve decision making skills
-Learn to practice relaxation skills
Medications – Anti-depressants are most commonly used to treat hoarding. There use must be discussed with a medical doctor.
Your EAP can help a hoarder explore these options and determine which are right for him/her.