The Truth about Hoarding: A Real Dilema

LeslieJacobsBy Leslie Jacobs



The first time I ever was in a hoarders house was in the early 80s.  I had become friends with a group of people at work and I dropped off one of them at home—she invited me in to let me go to the bathroom.  As I walked into the kitchen there was stuff everywhere, dishes clean and dirty in the sink and on the table.  There were six chairs around the table, one for each member of the family, but now two people lived there: the adult woman who I worked with and her mother.  There was one path to get everywhere in the house…one small path to the bathroom and to the living room.  All the other rooms were filled so her mother and my friend shared a room. I couldn’t stay in the house for long and walked out explaining to my friend I don’t know why, but I just can’t deal with all that stuff in your house. We didn’t know then that this was an illness predicated by a loss.  I can understand that her mother had suffered the loss of her husband, and then started to keep items…everything that came into the home stayed there.  There was no definition of good or bad stuff. It was all stuff to be kept in the house.

Today, when dealing with hoarders we know a lot more about hoarding and at its basic form: it’s an inability to mourn a loss.  The loss could be death, divorce, breakup, any type of perceived loss, and the hoarding becomes a way to fill up that hole (or emptiness in your heart) with things.

Most people go broke spending money on items. The whole process of hoarding is to make the person feel better…and they will keep something like an empty tuna can, or a full one.  You can hoard almost anything food, paper, books, cosmetics, plants and animals too.

Hoarded items outside.

Hoarded items outside.

The misconception is that it only happens to poor or middle class people,but it happens to the rich and celebrities too. Why do you think Michael Jackson was 500 million dollars in debt? He was a hoarder. Do you think Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld are hoarders?  Who needs that many cars? Driving through towns I can always tell a hoarder by their front lawn: too many somethings.  Cars, lights, furniture, broken items all over the lawns waiting to be fixed. People who are have mess in their lawns tend to be messy in their homes too. Less Is More as the saying goes.

In the early days of my organizing business I had a client who “just wanted to know if my wife is a hoarder or just a collector as she had claimed”.  I remember the conversation as it was last week. He described walking through the house and stumbling on items such as a coffee pot and a suitcase. I told him, you don’t need to pay me money, so I can come to your town and tell you.  I can tell by your descriptions, she isn’t a collector.  But, he wanted me to come and talk to the family, so off I went.

As I walked through the front door and looked into the living room…Yes, I said, yes she is a hoarder.  There were clothes (baby and adult), suitcases and baby furniture on the floor.  On the living room couches and chairs were also clothes pilled very high and spilling on to the floor.  Clothes were on every surface, even on the TV. The large dining room table sat eight and each chair was filled with “stuff” and the table was too.  His wife was out and expected back within minutes.  I asked him who died in your family.

He was at a loss for words.  No one he said.

His wife came home, and was very surprised to see me, but understood her husband’s need to call me and we talked.  Turned out her favorite neighbor died and she started shopping at Goodwill.

One of the major findings about hoarding is depression and it is set off by a loss.  It can be the loss of a family member (including animals), a divorce, break-up, or any type of perceived loss, that can start someone on a path of hoarding.

One question I am asked is how does a hoarder get so much stuff? It’s easy, they don’t toss anything, from the takeout container (and they usually don’t wash it out), to in very extreme cases their urine and feces.

There are five stages to hoarding and most of what is on TV’s Hoarders is stage 5—broken walls, no electricity, no water, and the whole house may be a fire hazard.  Most times the local law enforcement agencies are brought to help. Usually with these types of level 5 the whole house is taken down.

A room full of hoarded items.

A room full of hoarded items.

Most Professional Organizers (PO’s) deal with hoarders from level 1 which all doors and stairways are accessible and there are no odors and the clutter is not excessive.  Some PO’s can handle Level 2: clutter inhibits the use of more than two rooms, and there are smells that are not pleasant.

In my 15 years of being a PO (my how time flies when you are having fun!) I have dealt with 5 hoarders and all were level 2. Unless you are a family member of a hoarder, you might not know your next door neighbor is one, unless they have stuff on their lawn and have never invited you into their home.

In my experiences when the phone call comes from the family members who cares about the person who is hoarding, then it’s time to call in the big guns.  The whole family is also affected by hoarding and needs to do some therapy. If you live in New Britain and/or the surrounding towns look no further than The Institute of the Living in Hartford.  It is the premier place for all things hoarding and dealing with this as a mental illness. The programs and the head were once on Oprah too.

Hoarding cuts through all economic barriers from Greenwich to West Hartford. There are hoarders in Granby and Warren too.  So, if you know a hoarder be gentle with them, and get them help. They might not like it at first, but everyone deserves to live in a clean and organized home.


Leslie Jacobs writes a column about real life organizing.  Reach her through her website or call 860-306-7779 to book an appointment.