Hoarding: What Really Lies Beneath All of This? Heather Matuozzo Delves Deep
Heather Matuozzo has formed Clouds End - a Community Interest Company to help hoarders. Here we look at the background to this problem and hear Heather's vision of the future...
We probably all have too much stuff. Most of us have cluttered closets and drawers. A recent survey by Hammonds Furniture revealed that 25% of us have been forced to stop using at least one room because it is too full of stuff!
But for about 2% of people the problem is much worse. They are busy filling their homes with everything from rusty bicycles to rotten food. They block doorways and hallways. They fill sinks and bathtubs with junk; they bury sofas and beds beneath piles of old clothes or newspapers. They are often characterised as lazy or dirty people but in truth their behaviour is evidence of a psychiatric condition called compulsive hoarding or hoarding disorder.
Hoarders come from all social backgrounds and span all education and income levels, but because of the social stigma many hoarders still remain a family secret. Click here for an interesting YouTube video which features examples of the impact of hoarding on the lives of individuals.
Fortunately, hoarding is slowly spilling out of the closet and into the limelight. In the US, a TV programme called Hoarders is in its second series. It has stirred up some debate and even been featured by Oprah Winfrey. In the UK the phenomenon of hoarding has been featured in TV series such as "Life of Grime".
The famous writer E.L. Doctorow's latest novel Homer and Langley is based on the reclusive Collyer brothers. These legendary hoarders were found dead in their Fifth Avenue mansion in 1947 amidst 130 tons of trash, including 14 pianos, 25,000 books, decades worth of newspapers and the chassis of a Model T Ford.
Hoarding can cause many personal and social problems but psychologists are only just beginning to understand what causes it and how to help sufferers. There are some distinctions between hoarding and other forms of mess... Collectors are discerning and they display their treasures proudly. Clutterers are willing and able to clean up, and they welcome assistance. Hoarders often stubbornly resist help and turn a blind eye to the chaos.
But hoarding still defies easy categorisation. It's often seen as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but some aspects don't fit the OCD pattern. Nearly 90% of hoarders acquire things excessively with a rush of pleasure that's not typical of OCD. Indeed, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry concluded that hoarding may be a separate syndrome from OCD as can be seen here.
Some hoarders show signs of dementia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention-deficit disorder. Many have trouble making decisions about objects. They fear they'll later regret discarding something. Their possessions are often extremely disorganised. Bills can go unpaid because they are lost amid piles of videos and clothing and services can get cut off, which compounds the squalor and increases the health risks.
Some hoarders have even been killed by their own clutter, literally buried alive by it. An article in the Guardian highlighted their plight here.
Social services have problems with hoarding too. They often can't intervene until the situation is almost beyond help. Their hands are tied by the Human Rights Act of 1998 but also because there is very little known about this syndrome and there are few strategies in place to deal with it. Hoarders are misunderstood and rarely receive much sympathy. This means that hoarders rarely seek help and if they do there is little help to be found.
Hoarders have been evicted from their homes or had their children taken into care. Sometimes hoarders are put up in hotels while their own properties are repaired and redecorated and their possessions are thrown away. On their return they may simply repeat their behaviour. This whole procedure can cost the authorities up to £60,000 per case - which is very expensive for a short-term fix.
In the UK Heather Matuozzo has been working with hoarders. She is convinced that there is a more compassionate and cost-effective solution to the problem. She has found that the authorities are aware of hoarding problems but are unsure how to help. Heather has formed a social enterprise called Clouds End to address this issue.
Heather uses a person-centred approach based on patience and understanding which allows hoarders to make their own decisions in their own homes. "You have to work with the person, listen to them. We should always be non-judgemental and never chastise - and try to get them to recognize that their lives can be better without so much clutter. Eventually hoarders can find new pleasures in sorting out their stuff and discarding it."
For those hoarders who resist this process, a strategy of "harm reduction" can be adopted. This accepts that the hoarding is likely to continue, but minimizes its dangers by keeping doors and stairwells clear and moving newspapers and clothes away from stoves or space heaters. What experts and hoarders alike agree on is that anger and resentment don't work.
"Hoarders need support and non-judgemental advice to help develop new strategies," says Heather. "It is hard work for all parties involved. There is no quick fix but empowering a person to help themselves is always the best practice."
Heather believes this approach should be adopted nationwide and Clouds End is planning to demonstrate over the next two years how these pioneering techniques can help both hoarders and the local authorities.
"Our case studies will show that local authorities can make large monetary savings by adopting these methods. But there will also be savings of a human kind as well if hoarders are not subjected to the trauma of eviction or losing their children."
Some states in the US have task forces to deal with hoarding. They consist of a personal organiser, a psychiatrist, a cleaning company and a property repair company.
Clouds End hopes to work closely with the authorities to develop similar task forces here. Clouds End will help train staff to understand the disorder - and eventually they would like to introduce a standard assessment tool that would help the authorities recognise a hoarding problem and assess whether the task force should be alerted. This work is endorsed by The Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College Hospital, London who will be working together with Clouds End on this project.
"We named this venture Clouds End to reflect our optimistic outlook," explains Heather. "We know there is hope for sufferers of this common condition."
Heather Matuozzo of Clouds End CIC will be at the Housing, Support and Social Care Conference 2010 at the Botanical Gardens, Birmingham on 23rd March.
(Added to site Wednesday, July 14th, 2010)
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