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Beyond Clutter

How to tell if you've got a real hoarding problem

A kitchen piled high, Beyond Clutter, Hoarding

Courtesy TLC (Hoarding: Buried Alive)

Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by a psychological drive to acquire and save objects.

For many of us, decluttering can be dirty, difficult, even demoralizing. But for those who have a compulsive tendency to hoard, it is downright impossible.

Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by a psychological drive to acquire and save objects. What's the difference between a clinical case and an unreconstructed pack rat? When possessions interfere with normal daily activities, says Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Massachusetts and coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. "If you can't cook on your stove, if you can't use your bathtub because it's full of stuff, then you have tipped over into a clinical hoarding pattern," he says. Other clues include money problems and family friction sparked by out-of-control clutter. Hoarders also tend to overreact when asked to declutter or when others throw away their possessions.

Up to 5 percent of Americans exhibit hoarding behavior. Sufferers come from all economic classes, though there is a slight correlation with poverty. Hoarding is often accompanied by obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The average age of people who hoard is 50, says Frost, and symptoms often get more severe over time. Older people also run a higher risk of clutter-related problems such as respiratory illness and falling.

The good news for hoarders and their family members: Treatment options exist. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective, and some subjects respond to medication. It can be hard to talk a hoarder into pursuing treatment, but it's important to maintain connection. "Just visiting [them at home] will have some impact," Frost explains. "It may be uncomfortable, but they will do things to try to manage their space if you visit."