We often see news stories featuring people known as “hoarders.” Photos and video depict unsanitary and often unlivable conditions and the frustrated tales from family and friends who are struggling to understand why their loved ones let things get so bad. What most don’t realize is that hoarding disorder is a lot more than a messy house and an abundance of things.

What is Hoarding Disorder?

Hoarding disorder is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM V) as persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. The behavior usually has harmful effects — emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal — for the person suffering from the disorder and family members.

For someone with hoarding disorder, it’s not as simple as throwing the items away. They have an emotional attachment to their possessions and discarding them can cause them significant mental anguish and emotional distress.

Hoarding: Degrees of Severity

Like many disorders, hoarding varies in degree of severity. Randy Frost, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Smith College, created a rating scale called the Clutter Image Rating Scale, which helps patients and clinicians determine the level of severity of the hoarding disorder. The scale, which ranges from levels 1 to 9, shows images of different rooms in a home with various amounts of clutter. Patients are then encouraged to choose a picture which best reflects their own home. This helps to determine where on the spectrum the patient falls.

The study of hoarding disorder is still relatively new and researchers are learning new things all the time about people who are dealing with this disorder.

Older Adults and Hoarding

When it comes to senior citizens and hoarding disorder, it can be even more difficult to help. Often family realizes the extent of the disorder when it becomes necessary to move their loved one out of their home and into a skilled care facility. When dealing with a geriatric patient, it’s important to consider their background to figure out the root cause of the problem.

Research has also shown that there is a familial link found in hoarding disorder. For every hoarder in a family, there is usually at least one other family member with the same struggle, whether from the same or different generations.

How to Help a Hoarder

Fortunately, there is help for people who are struggling with this condition. If you feel your friend or loved one might have hoarding disorder, consider the following options:

  • Reach out to them in a comforting and gentle way. While it may seem like a simple solution of removing items from a home, hoarding is a serious psychological disorder that causes distress for patients. Try to listen to them and be understanding. Don’t judge them or make them feel embarrassed.
  • Common characteristics of hoarding patients are disorganization, an inability to complete tasks, and perfectionism. It will be difficult for them to follow through with looking into counseling so being the person to help them through the process can be very beneficial. Offer to find them a counselor or help them discover resources that are available in their community.