Palisades Alliance for Seniors Discuss Serious Issues Presented from Hoarding

By Rosemary Kelly
Special to the Palisades News

Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things—even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary.

Many of us do spring cleaning, a yearly challenge to try to stay ahead of accumulating “junk” in our household, but those are fighting words to somebody who is becoming a chronic hoarder, and it’s something that needs to be addressed.

Christina Nairn LCSW, chairwoman of the Hoarding Task Force and Supervisor for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Genesis Program spoke to a large audience in the Palisades Library community room on April 3, under the auspices of Palisades Alliance Senior Group.

Hoarding is symptomatic of a mental disorder.

Hoarding is symptomatic of a mental disorder.

Nairn has worked for 13 years with hoarders. When she was in graduate school at Long Beach State University, she first became interested in the disorder. Hoarding is now listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

She spoke about how some hoard items such as clothing, newspapers, file boxes, animals, books and stuffed animals. Some people have a hard time discarding items, which means it can affect the quality of life, health and emotions.

Rooms are no longer used for their intended purpose. Door and window exits are often blocked. It can be difficult to move through a home with these blockages, and this can be a danger for people living in these homes, especially the elderly.

Nairn said the treatment of hoarding is slow.“First it is necessary to assess the root of the problem,”she said.“Often hoarding is due to depression, which requires medication.”

Second, she said that hoarders have to be educated on safety issues. “Their homes can be a fire hazard and a danger to themselves as well as the people or firemen who try to save them in case of a fire,” Nairn said. “When the entries such as windows, doors and aisles are blocked with boxes and items, it is difficult for the rescuers trying to get to them because smoke diminishes their sight.”

One of their first lessons given to a hoarder is to make him/her walk through the house blindfolded because in a fire smoke debilitates one’s sight.

This gives hoarders a good indication of how long it takes to climb over bundles of boxes and or piles of clothing.

According to Nairn, hoarders must learn that entries need to be cleared, and windows and doors made easily accessible and aisles given a three-foot space to walk through.

Then professionals work with hoarders on the three-box method of SAVE, DISCARD and DONATE. And if an item is to be saved, it is placed immediately in a place that is not considered a hoarding area.

When social workers and nurses assess the home of a hoarder, they generally determine which issues (on a 1-to-5 scale) needs the most help, with 4 and 5 representing extreme cases: structural damage, mold and mildew, odor, rotting food on countertops, no clean utensils or dishes to eat off, animal waste, squirrels and rodents running amok, fleas, no plumbing or sewers broken down.

These cases are addressed first, and the mental state of the person is also evaluated. Is the person sick or depressed? Then, medication is administered to help them overcome their anxiety or depressed state.

Compulsive hoarding usually masks some underlying problem, such as depression, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, sadness, grief, fatigue, anger, hostility or fear of losses.

Up to four percent of Americans exhibit hoarding behavior, but it generally affects people 50 years and older. Visit hoarding.com or call ACCESS (Department of Mental Health) (800) 854-7771.

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