Definition of a Hoarder

By Ilene Federman, LCSW-C

HoardingImagine walking into your home and not being able to go anywhere but the small path in front of you because of the large amount of clutter from floor to ceiling.  There are piles of trash, bags, newspapers and other items covering the floor, furniture, counter tops, basements, bathtubs and often times even the floors of the shower stall making it impossible to cook, bathe or sleep in the bed.

For many of us, knowledge of hoarding comes from reality TV, and because of that, hoarders are often the butt of jokes.   But hoarding is, in fact, a serious disorder which includes the following:

  • A person collects and keeps a lot of items, even things that appear useless or of little value to most of us.
  • These items clutter the living spaces in one’s home, making it impossible to use the space for its intended purpose.
  • These items cause distress or problems in day-to-day activities.

So how does hoarding start? It usually begins early in life though this can vary greatly.  In children hoarding can look like an extreme attachment to objects. Hoarding behavior usually begins around the age of 13. The behavior is usually mild and not considered a disorder. It progresses to a moderate problem in the 20’s and 30’s and a severe problem in the 40’s and 50’s. It usually occurs earlier in women but more frequently in men. Many people who hoard experience stressful and traumatic events in their lives and these events can lead to periods of worsening symptoms.  Hoarding does not happen overnight. It slowly blooms and grows over many years.

The signs of hoarding include:

  • difficulty getting rid of things
  • a large amount of clutter in the home, car, office, storage units that make it difficult to move around freely
  • losing important items like money or bills
  • feeling overwhelmed by the volume of possessions
  • being unable to stop taking free items,
  • buying things to stock up or because they are a bargain
  • not inviting friends or family into the home because of embarrassment or shame
  • refusing to let people into the home to make repairs

It’s important to remember to keep this all in perspective.  While some of these behaviors may hit home, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re a hoarder.   Hoarding is a symptom of mental illness; an anxiety disorder- with obsessive/compulsive behavioral patterns.  Hoarders become isolated and their relationships become problematic. The best way to help and overcome a hoarding problem is to catch it early. If you see signs in yourself or you suspect someone you love is headed down a dangerous path, reach out.  Keep in mind that until your loved one is motivated to change, they are not likely to accept your offer of help.  And simply put, motivation cannot be forced.  Everyone has the right to make choices about their possessions and how they live.  People who hoard are often ambivalent about accepting help and throwing away possessions.

Being messy is ok but it crosses a line when the clutter threatens the health and safety of those living in or near the home. Health problems, structural problems, fire and even death have been known to occur in extreme cases.

While hoarding is a fairly recently recognized disorder, there is help here at JCS and other places.  If you know someone struggling with hoarding behaviors, contact a mental health professional to discuss  therapy options.

ilenefedermanBy Ilene Federman, LCSW-C, JCS Therapy Services

To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.


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