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Hoarding dilemmas: Friends and family cope with junk piles and health hazards
Reality TV and talk shows have put hoarding in the spotlight, showing in vivid and heartbreaking detail what happens in the worst cases.
But hoarding is also something many of us witness firsthand.
According to a survey by Insure.com, 46 percent of adults say they know someone who hoards.
Among those who know a hoarder, here are the culprits:
- Friend: 32 percent.
- Family member: 27 percent.
- Neighbor: 23 percent.
- Parent: 15 percent.
- Spouse: 8 percent.
- Myself: 6 percent.
- Child: 5 percent.
- Other: 5 percent.
Compulsive hoarding is more than just poor housekeeping or collecting a lot of stuff. Collectors usually display their possessions with pride and keep them organized. In a hoarding situation, the items are usually in disarray, according to the International OCD Foundation.
The foundation says compulsive hoarding includes all three of the following:
- The person collects a lot of items, even things that appear useless to others.
- The belongings clutter living areas to the point that rooms can't be used as they were intended.
- The stuff causes problems in daily activities.
Too much stuff everywhere
All sorts of things are hoarded. According to Insure.com’s survey, these are the most commonly hoarded items:
- Mixed items: 34 percent
- Knickknacks: 16 percent
- Magazines and newspapers: 11 percent
- Clothes: 9 percent
- Food: 7 percent
- Electronics: 5 percent
- Containers: 4 percent
- Other: 4 percent
- Animals: 4 percent
- Bags: 4 percent
- Appliances: 1 percent
Among write-in answers for “other,” people named boxes, broken-down cars and, in many cases, simply “everything.” And much of it is “stacked to the ceiling,” many reported.
Bugs on food, rat droppings, pet poop, maggots, dead animals and even murder plans were some of the “most shocking” items seen in hoarders’ piles. Other oddities spotted were 200 pairs of shoes, boxes of empty pill bottles, collections of fast-food and Starbucks cups, and used Band-Aids.
Fire and health risks
Hoarding becomes a home insurance issue when it creates health and safety hazards.
"There can be liability concerns, depending on what type of material is being kept," says Bryan Cook, a senior assistant vice president for Amica Mutual Insurance Co. "Too much debris around the residence could attract kids or cause someone to trip or fall."
Fire risks are another serious concern. Too much stuff could also hide other problems, such as decay or mold, or make it difficult for emergency workers to respond, Cook says.
In the most extreme cases, the sheer weight of the items could damage the structure, says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.
Of the Insure.com survey respondents who said they know a hoarder, 59 percent said the piles are a fire hazard, and 53 percent said the items are a health hazard. Almost 20 percent said the hoarding was a hazard to the health of animals.
Despite the hazards, cleaning it up is easier said than done.
"For someone with hoarding, even when they know they have a problem, pushy efforts to talk them into discarding lots of stuff will inevitably result in digging in their heels," says Gail Steketee, dean and professor of the Boston University School of Social Work and co-author of "Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding." "A much better approach is to put one's self in the place of the person with hoarding and imagine that the objects, whatever they may be, are wanted or at least the person is unsure whether giving them up will be OK."
Among the Insure.com survey respondents who know hoarders, 71 percent had tried to get rid of items. Of those:
- 25 percent said they were successful.
- 34 percent said their efforts failed.
- 41 percent said they were able to throw away only some of the items they thought needed to be tossed.
The hoarders themselves had a variety of reactions to others’ efforts to get rid of things (respondents could choose more than one selection):
- Tried to make piles of things to save: 36 percent
- Cried or screamed: 29 percent
- Weren't there: 25 percent
- Blocked entry: 24 percent
- Recalled memories associated with the things: 21 percent
- Locked them out: 12 percent
- Other: 8 percent.
- Left the premises: 7 percent
Some of us are forced to deal with houses filled to the brim. Among those who knew a hoarder, 36 percent said they had to clean out a house after a hoarder moved or passed away.
Of the 54 people who identified themselves as hoarders, 76 percent said they were successful in throwing away items. Another 17 percent said they tried but couldn't, and 7 percent said they hadn't tried.
Home insurance and hoarding
The homeowners insurance industry was aware of hoarding problems long before TV producers got wind of the issue.
"We've always been attuned to the risks that can come up with the accumulation of clutter," says Cook.
But it's not something that comes up every day, he adds. "We don't see it all that much, and it's rare we see a situation like what you see on those TV shows."
Worters says home insurance companies wouldn't necessarily know a policyholder is hoarding unless they did an inspection before they insured the property or during the life of the policy. An insurer would learn about hoarding, for instance, during an inspection after a claim is made. Even if the claim weren't the result of hoarding, the insurer would still want to address any hazards found to prevent future claims.
Whether a large amount of clutter is harmless or hazardous is a judgment call, Worters says, "based on the knowledge and experience of a property inspector and an underwriter. There are no hoarding standards as far as I know with any companies."
Cook says Amica takes an educational, nonjudgmental approach.
"We try to address it strictly from a risk standpoint, not a lifestyle standpoint," he says.
If inspectors found hazards from hoarding, Cook says, they would point those issues out to the homeowner and explain why they were dangerous. Then they would educate the homeowner on how to address the problems and give them a timeframe to accomplish the tasks. The solutions and timeframes would depend on the situation.
"We tend to look at each one of these on its own merits and circumstances," Cook says. "Then we will follow up to make sure they've taken action."
If the homeowner refuses to address the problems, then "maybe we're not the company for them," says Alicia Charles-St. Juste, vice president at Amica.
Cancellation of a policy or nonrenewal would be the very last resort, she adds. Nonrenewal is when your insurer decides not to continue insuring you at the end of your policy term. Cancellation is when your insurer cancels your policy in the middle of your term, and usually states have specific laws on when this can and can’t be done.
Cook says someone with a hoarding issue who met the company's requirements to remove potential hazards would not face a premium increase. There is no system for determining premium based on hoarding risk.
"Either it's an acceptable risk or unacceptable risk," he says.
Worters says nonrenewal of home insurance is typically done only in extreme cases. In the worst cases, cancellation in the middle of the term is possible if the property is in such poor shape that it's materially different than the risk the insurance company agreed to insure.
Tips for helping loved ones who hoard
When you see the mess created by someone else's hoarding, your first impulse might be to start cleaning it up and throwing things out, regardless of whether the owner wants any help.
Instead, take a breath and approach the situation with care.
Here are some tips from Gail Steketee, dean and professor of the Boston University School of Social Work:
- If the clutter is creating hazardous conditions, focus on your concern for the person's safety and address the most adverse consequences of the behavior, such as fire, falling or health problems.
- Consult resources to get some perspective on the problem and learn about best approaches. "Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding and Compulsive Acquiring" by Michael Tompkins and Tamara Hartl is for concerned friends and family members of people who don't realize they have a hoarding problem and are resistant to help. "Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding," co-authored by Sketekee, David Tolin and Randy Frost, provides an overview of compulsive hoarding and a step-by-step plan for people who are struggling to beat it.
- Put yourself in the hoarder's shoes. Imagine how you'd feel if someone came into your home and forced you to give away some of the things you value. "It is normal for someone with hoarding (or most of us for that matter) to resist when other people try to help clean up our homes. This is our own personal space, so why would we allow someone else to do this, especially if we are not consulted?" Steketee says. "Empathy will go a long way, and discussion of safety issues are reasonable grounds for talking about next steps."
- Practice patience and kindness. Express what needs to be done to meet safety standards in a kind, firm and respectful way, so that the person who hoards feels supported and has room to express concerns.
- Don't try to throw things out behind the person's back. "This is probably the single fastest way to damage their relationship with the person who hoards, apart from a direct personal attack," Steketee says. "So I would definitely not advise this strategy, tempting though it may be."
- After addressing immediate safety concerns, seek a long-term solution by helping the person who hoards learn new skills to decide what they need and what they can throw out or give away, and what will make their lives better, according to their goals and values.