Help is out there for hoarders

About 15 elder care and mental health professionals from Franklin County, Pa., recently attended training about the issue

September 05, 2012|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • Ashley McCullough, left, and Michelle Briggs, who both work for the Franklin County (Pa.) Area Agency on Aging, recently attended training about hoarding.
By Jennifer Fitch, Staff Photographer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Stacks of magazines. Broken appliances. Blocked stairways and doorways.

Instances of hoarding can dramatically affect someone’s daily life, but experts say the behaviors are tied to depression and need intervention to control.

About 15 elder care and mental health professionals from Franklin County, Pa., recently attended training about hoarding.

“We do go into homes where this is a problem,” said Michelle Briggs, a Franklin County Area Agency on Aging care manager.

Her co-worker, Ashley McCullough, said the agency often receives calls from concerned relatives of a possible hoarder.

“This is a big problem,” she said. “There are different strategies and ways to help someone.”

Colleen McDonnell from Set Me Free! professional organizing conducted the training. She is a former hospice and long-term care social worker whose “dream job” tackles clutter.

“At first, I thought I was leaving the field of social work. Now, I realize I still do it,” McDonnell said.


Many clients in need of professional organizing have mental health problems like depression or attention deficit disorder, McDonnell said. Talking about an item’s history with someone can aid a grieving process, she said.

For years, hoarding was thought to be linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, but researchers now believe it is tied to depression, McDonnell said. New interventions are expected to be forthcoming, she said.

“When I’m organizing, it’s like seeing the mental clutter,” she said.

Hoarding now receives more publicity because of television programs focused on it, but references to hoarding can be found in research dating to the 14th century, McDonnell said.

“I think it’s more common now because our stuff is more disposable. ... Things are cheaper and more available,” she said.

People with depression who are putting off everything in their lives and feel overwhelmed can be mistaken for actual hoarders, McDonnell said. The hoarders are more attached to their belongings, she said.

“They feel more comfortable being surrounded by things,” McDonnell said.

“Some people you talk to say, ‘I don’t want to live like this,’” Briggs said.

Changing behaviors and ridding homes of excess items is a process, not a quick task, McCullough said.

People assisting hoarders in that process need to be sensitive to words being used, as the hoarder does not view his or her belongings as “junk” or “trash,” Briggs said.

“To them, everything is precious,” she said.

Experts say a hoarder typically must undergo counseling or be put on medications to help the depression.

Briggs said the Franklin County Area Agency on Aging may be able to set up counseling for someone if he or she is income eligible.

If a hoarding situation warrants, protective services might become involved, McCullough said.

Ways to motivate a hoarder to make improvements can include mentioning safety concerns or suggesting hosting a family event in the home once it is clean, McDonnell said.

Chambersburg Emergency Services Chief William FitzGerald said he has encountered hoarding situations in his 38 years in fire service. He said extra debris causes a fire to burn hotter and can make navigating through a home hard.

“Sometimes the hoarding itself causes the fire,” FitzGerald said, saying items can fall onto overloaded extension cords, exposed wires or the heating system.

FitzGerald said it can be difficult to find victims in an overly cluttered house, which is more susceptible to structural damage in a fire once attacked by firefighters’ water lines.

“You can imagine water-soaked clothing, paper or anything is heavier, so it increases the risk of collapse,” he said.

McDonnell, of Harrisburg, Pa., said stacked paper is a common problem among hoarders, who are often well educated and avid readers.

“There have been rooms I’ve been in and only discovered later there was a couch in there,” she said.

McDonnell, whose website is, tells clients hoarding is not a house problem, it’s a person problem.

“When you clear out a home (without proper support), it increases the anxiety of the person, which increases the behaviors. ... I think the biggest misconception is it’s like a light switch that can be turned off,” she said.

Helpful tips

Tips for working with a potential hoarder from organizer Colleen McDonnell:

  • The first concern should be safety.
  • Hoarding has roots in mental health issues, not laziness. The potential hoarder may need medication or therapy.
  • Be respectful and match your language to theirs, avoiding words like “junk.”
  • Team up and don’t argue.
  • Set realistic goals.
  • Offer ideas and reasonable incentives, such as hosting a family event in the home.
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