Buried in Treasure: Workshop aims to help those affected by hoarding

It started about 20 years ago with knickknacks.

By then, Randy Wade’s parents had already moved several times.

“Seems like every move, there was more junk and stuff,” said Wade, who recalled his father having fewer things — garage-type tools, an accumulation of nuts, bolts and car parts.

His mother had the lion’s share — loads of clothing from thrift stores, much of which would never be worn. She’d collect dressers, too, on which more clothes would be piled.

“It was hers, and she wanted to keep it,” he said.

Wade’s mother had been — and, perhaps, continues — hoarding, the compulsive purchasing, acquiring, searching and saving of items that have little or no value, according to information from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (see bit.ly/adaahoard).

Typically, it has damaging effects — not only on the hoarder, but his or her loved ones, as well. Like Wade and his sister, who are currently estranged from their mother.

To help locals like Wade who are dealing with hoarding, LIFE Senior Services has invited Dr. Randy O. Frost to present “Buried in Treasure,” which includes a one-day professional workshop and a free community presentation Oct. 29 at Marriott Tulsa Southern Hills hotel, 1902 E. 71st St.

Frost is a professor of psychology at Smith College and co-authored the book “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” which was published in 2010.

His community presentation will include a description of hoarding disorder, its effect on families and communities, and steps communities can take to deal with the problem. The role of hoarding task forces will be discussed, as well.

It’s estimated that between 2.3 and 5.8 percent of the general population are compulsive hoarders of varying degrees, according to information from LIFE Senior Services. Those percentages translate respectively to 13,878 and 34,997 Tulsa County residents.

“Hoarding disorder is not a respecter of person; it’s found among people from all socio-economic backgrounds and across the lifespan,” said Carol Carter, LIFE Senior Services’ community affairs coordinator.

For some, it’s relatively harmless, she said. But for many, it is truly a threat to their health, safety and independence.

Such was the case with Wade’s parents. His father suffered a stroke at home in 2010, which led to a series of events ending with Wade and his sister being awarded guardianship of their father late last year.

“Relationships were probably ruined, can probably never be mended,” Wade said.

Organized chaos

The problem of hoarding involves three things, Frost said during a recent phone interview from Massachusetts.

First is a difficulty discarding possessions – getting rid of them in any way, be it throwing stuff out, selling it, even donating it, Frost said.

Second, it’s an excessive level of acquisition, such as people compulsively buying things or picking up free things that they don’t need or have space for, and it fills up their home.

Finally, and most apparently, is the extensive amount of clutter in the home, Frost said — not just in a basement or attic, but clutter that’s so extreme in living areas of the home that the spaces can’t be used for their intended purposes.

That’s when it becomes a clinical problem, said Frost, who tries to avoid using the word “hoarder,” as that defines the person.

What he sees in hoarding “runs the gamut,” although most with hoarding problems have a few common characteristics.

For starters, they’re highly “perfectionistic” and concerned about making mistakes, which immobilizes them in terms of dealing with possessions.

Also, they have issues making decisions. People who hoard are more likely to have attention deficit problems or the opposite, Frost said — a highly focused level of attention, especially when acquiring things.

Beyond that, people who hoard have issues related to categorization.

“Most of us live our lives categorically,” he said. When we receive a bill in the mail, we file it away, perhaps place it in a specific category, such as utilities.

But people with hoarding problems live their lives visually and spatially, he explained. The house of someone who hoards may seem disorganized, but they have basically made a mental map of their piles of stuff.

“If you can imagine doing that with everything you own, it becomes overwhelming,” he said. Eventually, they can’t locate things very easily. They can become very upset when people touch or move their things — maybe because someone has destroyed their mental map, Frost speculated.

It’s possible the disorder is partly genetic, he said. Having a parent who hoards increases the probability the child may develop a problem.

A common kind of hoarding isn’t identifiable, as the nature of what people collect is “all over the map,” Frost said. That’s what differentiates it from a collecting hobby. Those who hoard collect virtually everything.

However, one subtype is different: people who collect and hoard animals, most often domestic cats and dogs. This type of hoarding behavior is very similar to object hoarding, but different on a number of levels.

One is the level of degree of recognition that this is a problem, Frost said, which seems to be less apparent in people who hoard. It’s not so much the number of animals but the condition. If the animals are cared for, it’s not hoarding.

But when those animals deteriorate the living conditions of the home or when those animals aren’t well cared for, that’s a problem.

Getting help

If you or a loved one has a hoarding issue, the first thing Frost recommended was taking advantage of free community talks, such as the one he’ll lead Oct. 29.

One of the things he emphasizes in both his professional workshops and community meetings is that this behavior — specifically, the attachments people have that lead to it — is really quite normal.

“We all have things to which we are sentimentally attached,” he said. We infuse emotions into our possessions, like a ticket to a favorite concert. The ticket has no physical properties that make it important.

“What’s important,” he said, “is what’s in your head.” In hoarding, that’s simply exaggerated.

Beyond community talks, Frost recommended visiting the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Foundation’s website (see ocfoundation.org). It has a hoarding center, which he co-edits with a colleague.

Hoarding used to be considered a subtype of OCD; but this May, the American Psychiatric Association said it was a distinct disorder under the obsessive-compulsive category.

“This is sort of a watershed year for hoarding,” said Frost.

TV shows, such as the TLC network’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” have been a “two-edged sword,” he said. They brought the issue to the public eye in a big way, demonstrating that hoarding isn’t just some eccentricity or messiness. But it also focused on the more emotional, extreme cases, so viewers weren’t necessarily seeing an accurate depiction.

Still, Wade wonders if such a show couldn’t help his mother. Folks he saw on those programs seemed like “carbon copies” of his mom.

Meanwhile, she won’t sit down and talk with anyone about it.

“There’s always a chance for improvement,” Wade said in a hopeful tone. “God’s always there if you ask.”

For more, including workshop registration, visit seniorline.org

Jason Ashley Wright 918-581-8483