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The Hoarders Among Us

Understanding the illness behind the reality TV images

Hoarders

A camera captures a hoarder's living room before cleanup. — Courtesy of Screaming Flea Productions, Inc./A&E's "Hoarders"

There is a loud rustling sound as the door to a two-bedroom apartment in an upscale Virginia high-rise slowly opens, catching on a knee-high mound of discarded plastic bags and junk mail. The sole occupant, a 68-year-old retired government consultant named John M., whose last name is omitted to protect his privacy, greets the first visitor he's allowed to see his home in months.

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To the right is a small yellow kitchen, its stove buried under empty medicine containers, toilet paper rolls and used paper coffee cups that cascade onto the floor, forming a waist-high heap of trash. The sink doesn't work, but John won't call management, fearing his landlord's reaction to the mess. His spartan bedroom contains a single bed piled with old bank statements and ringed by more than a dozen paper shopping bags. Thick gray dust blankets most surfaces; it has accumulated in the four years since John moved in, abandoning his three-bedroom house where he still picks up his mail. That house is so stuffed with junk it has become uninhabitable.

John is a hoarder, with a psychological illness that disproportionately affects older men and women.

Hoarders on TV, in books and on the Web

The disorder, poorly understood, is marked by a compulsive accumulation of usually worthless possessions — and a corresponding inability to discard anything — and has catapulted into the public consciousness in the past decade, spawning a burgeoning number of reality TV shows, self-help books, a recent best-selling novel and numerous websites. More than 60 municipal task forces have sprung up around the country to deal with a problem that distresses families, angers neighbors, stymies public officials and frustrates therapists.

"It's a problem that's coming out of the woodwork, especially with the older adult population," says social worker Susan Hoskins, executive director of the Princeton (N.J.) Senior Resource Center and its hoarding task force. "As a therapist I have found very few things that are as difficult to treat … and so hard for people to give up." Hoskins says she routinely fields beseeching calls from grown children of hoarders asking, "What am I going to do about this?"

A 2008 study by Johns Hopkins University scientists estimated that nearly 4 percent of the population are hoarders. Other researchers have found that many hoarders grew up with a parent who hoarded; scientists believe the disorder results from the interplay of genetic and environmental factors.

Next: Hoarders think you're the problem. >>

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