Pierce County residents learn about hoarding

Some people came to find out what resources were available in the county. Other came to help a family member, or two, or three. But everyone who went to Pierce County’s presentation on hoarding came away learning how vast the mental disorder can be, and that they were not alone.

The county’s Aging and Disability Resources presented “Hoarding: The Hidden Problem Exposed” Jan. 20 at the Sumner library with Terina Bainter, an organizer with Clutter Cutters.

The purpose of the presentation was not only to provide accurate information about hoarding tendencies and resources for those affected, but to also combat the misinformation spread in the media, especially reality TV shows like “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”

“That first thing I get when I get a phone call is, ‘I’m not like those people on TV,” Bainter said. “What you see on TV is complete and utter squalor, and that is not what we are talking about.”

Between 1.4 to 2 million people across the U.S. have hoarding tendencies, said Bainter and Bob Riler, Aging and Disability Resources community outreach specialist. “That’s 2 to 5 percent of the population, which doesn’t sound huge until you put it in perspective that it’s about one in twenty individuals.”

It is estimated that there are 345,000 people with hoarding tendencies in Washington alone, although Bainter and Riler said hoarding tendencies often go under reported, sometimes due to a fear of being compared to the stereotypes seen on reality TV.

Collecting vs. hoarding

According to Bainter and Riler, there is a big difference between collecting, a normal and common human behavior, and hoarding.

They defined collecting as the acquisition, and eventual disposal, of items. It’s often an organized activity and special care is taken to keep the collection tidy.

In contrast, hoarding is the acquisition of items without the disposal, and is often much less organized than a regular collection.

Telltale differences between collecting and hoarding, Bainter said, are that the items someone with hoarding tendencies keep may appear to be of useless or limited value and living spaces are so cluttered that they can’t be used for their intended purposes.

Mental disorder

Bainter said hoarding used to be classified as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder but recent research shows that isn’t always the case. However, in 92 percent of diagnosed hoarding cases, there is at least one other co-disorder that may cause or worsen the hoarding tendencies.

Bipolar disorder, dementia and brain trauma are among some of the other disorders that are often co-diagnosed, but Riler said depression, “is the most characteristic co-disorder.”

Additionally, many people with hoarding tendencies don’t often realize how bad their situation is, Bainter explained. Instead, many people with hoarding tendencies rely on various, and inventive, thought processes to explain their situation to others.

Some of the excuses Bainter and Riler have ran into include sentimentality, a fear of forgetting (information, memories, etc.) and that what they have will eventually become of some use to them or someone else and shouldn’t be discarded.

Safety in cleanliness

One of the toughest things to realize when working with people with hoarding challenges, Bainter said, is they have the right to live the way they want to live.

It’s when their way of life becomes not just cluttered, but actively unsafe, is when steps need to be taken to ensure safety, she continued.

“The No. 1 issue that we need to address with anybody with any type of moderate to severe hoarding challenges is safety. Period,” Bainter explained. “Unless we live there and unless they are endangering us, themselves or the community, they get to live how they want to live.”

Infestations and garbage can be a health hazard if not taken care of quickly, and fire hazards can quickly multiply as clutter crowds around heaters and electrical outlets, Bainter said.

Bainter also mentioned having 3-foot wide walking paths through rooms, not just to limit the amount of tripping hazards and escape from their place of residence quickly during an emergency (meaning all doors and windows should be easily accessible), but so emergency services can enter and exit a house more easily during an emergency as well.

For more information about hoarding, visit the King and Pierce County’s joint task force website, The Hoarding Project.