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Hoarding Through The Looking Glass

Karren J Pope-Onwukwe


  • The article discusses encounters with hoarding behavior, citing famous cases and explaining the prevalence of hoarding disorder.
  • It highlights challenges in legal settings and workplaces, emphasizing the importance of understanding and accessing community resources when assisting individuals with hoarding tendencies.
Hoarding Through The Looking Glass

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A local attorney, Bonita and her seventy-seven-year-old mother Christine initially met with me to discuss estate planning and some questions that Christine had concerning her pension, health insurance, prescriptions, and Medicare. When they arrived in my office, Christine had not brought her most current bank statements or any correspondence concerning her pension as I had requested. After a brief discussion, I told Christine I would come and meet with her at her home to see if I could help her locate the information that we needed. Both the mother and daughter’s reaction to my suggestion was the same, “The house is a mess!”

The next week when I arrived at Christine’s house it was not dirty; however, it was more than a mess. There were numerous plastic grocery bags tightly tied up, they were filled with mail (including junk mail) that had never been opened. There were stacks and stacks of unopened nonperishable items, many duplications. Small appliances such as waffle irons and toasters were everywhere. No open space was available on any surface including counter tops, tables, chairs, the sofa, and steps. Every room, the living room, dining room, family room and kitchen. I had to remove items from a chair to sit down. Christine explained that since her husband’s death and her retirement she has been a little overwhelmed. One of the items that I located that day was the paperwork for Christine to sign and return to begin receiving her mandatory minimum distributions from her IRA which should have started seven years ago.

According to Dr. Elspeth Bell, the director of the Bell Center for Anxiety and Depression and a recognized expert in Hoarding Disorder, an estimated 2.6 people out of every 100 people suffer from this disorder. It wasn’t until very recently, in 2013, that compulsive hoarding was first defined as a mental disorder, although psychologists still can’t decide whether it is a manifestation of another condition, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or a disorder of its own. The National Fire Protection Association has developed an educational program to raise awareness among first responders and the general public to the fact that hoarding can be genetic and triggered by traumatic events, or it can be the symptom of another disorder such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or dementia. This public awareness campaign is important because most incidences of hoarding can to outsiders be like an Alice in Wonderland “topsy-turvy” experience; the hoarder and their family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers continue to act as if nothing unusual is occurring.

The most famous case of hoarding in the United States occurred in 1947 when the Collyer Brothers (Homer was a lawyer and Langley was an engineer/concert pianist) were found dead in their Fifth Avenue house. Initially, Homer was found dead in their home, two weeks later, the police found Langley Collyer’s body lying barely ten feet from where his older brother had died. The brothers died within a few feet of each other. Homer probably died several days after Langley’s death. Over 140 tons of debris such as newspapers, pianos, and books were removed from the house.

So how does a concerned person know if they are dealing with a messy person or hoarder? Dr. Bell explains that with a hoarder clutter does not seem to have a place or is stacked in boxes or loose possessions stacked up on top of each other. Additionally, they may have scores of pots and pans sitting on top of other possessions in a room other than the kitchen. The clutter is unorganized.

Like the Collyer Brothers, many times hoarding is not discovered until there is a fire or death. This has become such a problem in some communities that they have developed a hoarding task force. The International Exchange on Hoarding defines a hoarding task force as “a collaborative workgroup or alliance that is comprised of a variety of service providers.” These are not-for-profit entities that focus on coordinating managed responses to hoarding situations that reach the public’s attention (“public” often meaning government agencies). Additionally, the hoarding task forces provide community outreach, education about hoarding, and training for service providers.

The first hoarding task force was started in 1998 in Fairfax County, Virginia. Currently there are over 80 task forces across the country. These task forces are started by governmental agencies when they find themselves repeatedly dealing with the same persons with little or no success. Other task forces are formed in the aftermath of a tragic fire where rescue is hampered by and intensified due to hoarding in the home. The purpose of the task force is to balance the individual’s rights with the safety of the community.  

Most task forces have a legal component and a mental health component and they work together. The legal group generally has representatives from the court, police, animal control, fire and safety, community affairs and code enforcement. The mental health group generally has representatives from adult protective services, health and human services, and other types of crisis or therapeutic programs. The task forces take a holistic approach.

According to Dr. Bell, “Compulsive hoarding, characterized by excessive acquisition of items and extreme difficulty in letting go of them, is considered very difficult to treat. There is no “cure,” but rather there are interventions and treatments that work to minimize and manage the hoarding-related behaviors. Through cognitive behavior therapy, collaboration with an organizer, medication where appropriate, and other interventions, it is possible to achieve successful treatment. So why is it so difficult to achieve success when these effective interventions are available?”

The first case of hoarding the I personally encountered was in the Watergate apartment of an attorney; he died alone with a great deal of wealth and no known family members. In cases such as this, the difficulty with a hoarder is that they may appear to be living a rather routine life, going to work and presenting themselves to the world as pleasant and well-mannered. This gentleman had newspapers stacked in piles reaching the ceiling and there was a narrow passageway to maneuver through the apartment.  

Probably the most unusual case of hoarding I have encountered was in Bowie, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.). My realtor called from the home and said that I had to come to the house she was inspecting for the probate estate to list it for sale. When I arrived the two sons of the decedent were there amidst a sea of magazines and newspapers stacked to the ceiling as well as other items stored all over the property indoors and outside. We could not list the property before confronting the issue of the brothers. The other brothers and sisters had to work together to forge a plan to get mental/medical help for their brothers as well as find suitable housing for both. What we discovered was that one brother was the hoarder and the other brother simply had nowhere else to live.

In the workplace I have been in an office where one of the support staff members was a hoarder. It was very difficult to get her supervisor to intervene when I first approached him with my concerns based on my chance observation of her personal vehicle in the parking lot. It was not until she had stocked the refrigerator, freezer, and cabinets with food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and cluttered her workplace with clothing and other items that her colleagues became fearful that she was living in the office. His first response was to send her a memo asking her to remove the items by a certain date or they would be thrown out. Of course, that date came and went and the items were thrown out as she continued to accumulate clutter. Finally, he had to involve human resources to get her medical intervention. Through all of this she continued to do her job and was an excellent employee.

At the beginning of this article I introduced my most recent client, Christine, who is a hoarder. Hers is an example of how complicated and involved this type of representation may become. At one point, Christine’s son and daughter had hired a company to come in and “organize” her home. Of course, Christine continued with her hoarding behavior. As her attorney, I have never referred to Christine as a hoarder; instead I have agreed to assist her in getting help with her feelings of being overwhelmed. I arranged a telephone conference call for her with a psychologist to begin treatment and am having her complete a General Durable Power of Attorney as well as an Advance Medical Directive.  

As more and more individuals and families are faced with this disorder it can feel overwhelming when seeking the advice of an attorney. In an office environment, it may be difficult to determine the underlying issue that caused them to reach out to an attorney and it may be advantageous to meet them at their home. Sometimes families and communities may wait so long to intervene that the only alternative available is seeking a guardianship/conservatorship. The reality is that working with a client that is a hoarder can be extremely difficult.  However, it can be extremely rewarding if you understand the disorder and if you are aware of the resources available in your local community. As the Cheshire Cat says in Alice In Wonderland, “I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”