Submitted by the Bedford Health Department
People living in cluttered environments often use the same words to describe their reaction to the situation they exist in: their energy is drained, they can’t find things, and it’s beginning to interfere with crucial parts of life such as getting to work or appointments on time or navigating staircases. Clutter is typically described as one of two types: sentimental clutter and someday clutter. Sentimental clutter consists of items that remind us of important events or people, like old newspaper articles or our parents’ belongings. Someday clutter refers to items you won’t toss because you feel you might need them someday and it would be a shame if they weren’t available to you. If you have so much stuff that it drags you into the past or pulls you into the future you can’t live in the present. Oftentimes when people describe clutter, they refer to it as suffocating or making them unable to breathe. This can represent a physical manifestation of a mental health issue.
Clutter is bad for your mental and physical health. Those overwhelmed with sentimental clutter may have an excessive preoccupation with things in the past and become depressed. Others, who can’t toss out items because they worry they will need them, may be anxious. Dust, mold, and animal dander and droppings that collect in cluttered homes can impact indoor air quality and exacerbate allergies and asthma. Stacks of boxes and bags of clothing, accumulated household supplies and trash that are piled high can fall on you. Limited or no pathways through your home cause you to fall or restrict access to exits in an emergency as well as prevent public safety personnel from safely and effectively entering your home in an emergency. There have been incidents in Bedford where restricted pathways and accumulated materials in a resident’s home impacted access to an emergency situation by public safety personnel.
Excess clutter serves as fuel in the event a fire breaks out in a home with excessive belongings. When firefighters enter a cluttered home in response to a fire alarm, excessive belongings can restrict access to the source of the fire due to the distance fire hoses have to travel around the belongings. This clutter can also fall and injure public safety personnel in the course of them conducting an emergency medical response, rescue or fight a fire, thus impeding safe evacuation of a resident or guest.
While all of these reasons to control clutter are important ones, the best thing to do is to take the first step. The key is to start small: Tackle one room or even one bookshelf at a time. Cleaning the clutter from drawers? Don’t dump the whole drawer. Instead, take out items that can be thrown away, then things you can donate. If you can’t initiate cleanup on your own, seek out a support group or contact a mental health provider who may be able to get on the right path.
Bedford Youth and Family Services (781-275-7727) can refer you to these groups, providers, and services that can get you started. They also have a resource list of area businesses that can help with cleanouts and heavy chores. Bedford Board of Health provides information and resources to address hoarding at www.bedfordma.gov/bedford-board-of-health/pages/hoarding. If you’re a senior, contact the Bedford Council on Aging (781-275-6825). They have connections to senior-specific cleaning services and programs to improve balance to prevent falls. Remember to keep smoke and carbon monoxide detectors properly functioning and replace batteries annually. In the event you do have a fire, those alarms just may save your life.
What is Compulsive Hoarding?
Compulsive hoarding is when a person collects and keeps an overabundance of items, which may often appear useless or of little value to most people. These items clutter the living spaces of the home and prevent the person from using their rooms as they were intended. Most often, people hoard common possessions, such as paper (e.g. mail, newspapers), books, clothing, and containers (e.g. boxes, paper and plastic bags). Others may accumulate multiples of the same items (appliances). Some people hoard garbage or rotten food. More rarely, people hoard animals or human waste products.
Who struggles with hoarding behavior?
Most people who hoard have been struggling with this problem all of their adult lives. Typically, compulsive hoarding begins with some clutter and difficulty discarding but then progresses over time until it becomes unmanageable and overwhelming. Most people who hoard are older adults, with an average age of 50, although hoarding behaviors can begin as early as the teenage years. Persons who hoard tend to live alone and often have a family member with the problem. About 2 to 5% of the population has a serious hoarding problem.
Signs of Compulsive Hoarding:
- Difficulty getting rid of or organizing items.
- A large amount of clutter that makes it difficult to use furniture or move around the home.
- Losing important items like money or bills in the clutter.
- Unusually strong positive feelings (joy, delight) when getting new items or unusually strong negative feelings (guilt, anger, fear) when considering getting rid of items.
- Strong beliefs that items are valuable or may be useful sometime in the future, even when other people do not want them.
- Denial of a problem even when the clutter clearly interferes with a person’s life and safety.
The Dangers of Hoarding
- Severe clutter threatens the health and safety of those living in or near the home and can lead to unsanitary conditions.
- In addition to health problems, hoarding can cause structural damage to the home, fires, and even death.
- Firefighters, Police Officers, and EMTs may not be able to gain access to a person in an emergency situation.
- Hoarding can represent a violation of the State Sanitary (Housing) Code, even in a private home, and can result in an order from the Board of Health to remove materials or organize clutter within a specific time frame.
- Expensive and emotionally devastating evictions or other court actions can lead to hospitalization or homelessness
- Conflict with family members can occur and friends become frustrated and concerned about the state of the home and the hoarding behaviors.
Is there help for those who hoard?
Treatment options include harm reduction and/or cognitive-behavior therapy or other support services. Whatever treatment one chooses to use, it is important to realize that clutter is the result of hoarding behavior. Therefore, clearing out the home of the person who hoards does not solve the underlying problematic hoarding and cluttering behavior.
How Can I Help a Hoarding Friend or Family Member?
- Attempts by family or friends to help with the decluttering may not be well-received by the person who hoards.
- Keep in mind that until the person is motivated to change, they may not accept an offer to help.
- Motivation cannot be forced.
- Everyone, including people who hoard, has a right to make choices about their objects and about how they live.
- Attempting to clean out the homes of people who hoard without treating the underlying problem usually fails.
- Hoarders whose homes are cleaned without their consent often experience extreme distress and may become further attached to their possessions. This may lead to their refusal of future help and cause them to isolate themselves from friends and family.
- Focus the intervention initially on safety. Unblock doors, windows, and heating vents and remove trash that is attracting pests. Eliminate fall and fire risks.