Hoarder habit may be enabled by families

A Toronto researcher has launched the first study of its kind to explore a key but little understood aspect of hoarding: the tendency for family members to do things that ultimately make it easier for hoarders to continue hoarding.

Family members tend to make it easier for hoarders to continue their obsession

Gordon and his wife are shown in a scene from the season premiere of the show Hoarders on A&E. (Screaming Flea Productions/AP)

A Toronto researcher has launched the first study of its kind to explore a key but little understood aspect of hoarding: the link between hoarders and their loved ones.

"It’s referred to as accommodation — the tendency for family members to do things that ultimately make it easier for hoarders to continue hoarding," says Martin Antony, chair of the psychology department at Ryerson University.

Accommodation in hoarding is not unlike the enabling or co-dependent behaviour often seen in the loved ones of alcoholics and drug addicts, he added.

Fifty-five families in Canada and the U.S. are being recruited to participate in the study. It aims to pinpoint how changing the behaviour of loved ones, who may be unwittingly supporting hoarding, can form part of the therapeutic process.

Examples of accommodation behaviour include:

  • Tolerating continued acquisition and clutter in the home.
  • Walking on eggshells at home for fear of disturbing the clutter.
  • Avoiding conversations about hoarding.
  • Providing reassurance in response to an individual’s concern about hoarding related behaviours.
  • Socializing less at home because of the clutter.
Martin Antony is leading a study on the possible role loved ones play in enabling hoarding behaviour. (Ryerson University)

It’s estimated that two to five per cent of Americans suffer from hoarding, though there are no comparable figures for Canada. The prevalence of hoarding tends to increase with age, with 50 being the average age when people seek help.

The disorder, which tends to run in families, has a genetic component, and learning also plays a role, said Antony. "Just growing up watching a family member hoard makes it seem normal."

In people who are predisposed to hoarding, stressful events, such as the death of a loved one, can trigger the disorder.

Symptoms of hoarding, which is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, can be defined as:

  • Difficulty throwing things away.
  • Having a home cluttered with possessions.
  • Buying or acquiring items that do not have an immediate use.

Television shows such as A&E’s Hoarders and HGTV's Consumed have brought the issue of hoarding into the open by spotlighting people with the most severe forms of the disorder. But It can range from mild, like the foot-high stack of magazines Antony is saving to read, all the way to severe where people have homes that are so filled with things it impairs their living in them, he said.

The consequences can be significant, with hoarders having higher than average rates of divorce or of never having been married, typically because they are too embarrassed to socialize.

Hoarding can be dangerous as well, with extensive clutter posing a fire hazard as well as a public-health risk. There have been at least three fires in the last three years in Toronto Community Housing units occupied by suspected hoarders.

After one fire at 200 Wellesley St. E. in 2010, housing and public health officials posted "Do Not Enter" orders on 19 other units in the building where hoarding was suspected.

Hoarding can also take a financial toll, with sufferers racking up huge debts because of their collecting, while those on public assistance tend to accumulate massive amounts of inexpensive items such as newspapers and things bought at dollar stores.

De-cluttering with the help of experts combined with cognitive behaviour therapy, which involves radically altering one’s thinking about excessive collecting, is typically used to treat hoarding, said Antony.

That means teaching people to change their beliefs about what it means to get rid of things and also not to acquire things in the first place, he added.

"Hoarders believe that if I throw it away I might need it later and when it’s not there, it will be a disaster. Or they may hang on to things out of a sense of moral obligation or sentimental attachment in the case of a deceased loved one’s belongings, for example."