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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Doctor K: How to help a suspected hoarder

Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D. M.D.

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have an aunt whose house is filled to the ceiling with junk in some places. I worry about her safety navigating around all that stuff. I think she is a hoarder. What causes this, and how can I help her?

DEAR READER: If your aunt’s house has become so filled with “stuff” that she can’t get around easily, I’m inclined to agree with you. She may indeed suffer from compulsive hoarding. Hoarders accumulate objects of questionable value in large and disorganized amounts.

Until recently, compulsive hoarding was considered a less-frequent symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But the majority of hoarders don’t have other OCD symptoms, such as compulsions and repetitive behaviors.

Compulsive hoarders may have a hard time throwing things away. This is true even when the things in question aren’t valuable or useful.

A hoarder’s home can become so disordered and unsafe that it’s difficult or impossible to navigate. Hoarders are much more vulnerable to falls and serious injuries, particularly if they are older than 60.

Unfortunately, family interventions don’t always help. They can cause rifts in relationships. If you want to help your aunt, be available to her, but it may be best to leave the heavy lifting to the professionals.

What to do? First, ask your doctor to help you identify a mental health professional who can help. Most moderate-size communities have professionals with special experience dealing with compulsive behaviors. Once you get that name, you can have a talk with your aunt. OCD and depression are sometimes tied to compulsive hoarding, and there are effective treatments for both.

Another approach to finding a therapist with experience in the treatment of hoarding is to check the hoarding section of the International OCD Foundation website, www.ocdfoundation. org/hoarding.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information: