From Watching Hoarders To Helping Them

From Watching Hoarders To Helping Them

Inside the clutter-filled brownstone where the brothers Homer and Langley Collyer were found dead amid their possessions in 1947. Photo: Associated Press

Inside the clutter-filled brownstone where the brothers Homer and Langley Collyer were found dead amid their possessions in 1947. Photo: Associated Press

If you're not familiar with Hoarders (and it's TLC equivalent, Hoarding: Buried Alive) it's a television show intended to examine (humiliate) a person who has accumulated so much in their home that they are nearly unable to function. Often there is some kind of clinical depression or recent event involving loss of a job or death in the family. Often there are extremely unhygienic conditions. Frequently, serpentine paths are followed in rooms stuffed to the ceilings with boxes and furniture and piles of what looks like debris. Whether the depression came about from the overabundance of material possessions or the other way around is not always clear.

The poor folks on these shows are humiliated, lectured and scolded. The depths of their supposed depravity are exposed. Then, as is the fashion with reality shows, they are reformed, usually by the host of the show to some kind of tearful inspirational swooning music. Crews of staff with matching t-shirts with the show's name come and remove the excess. Much is made out of the discovery of dead rodents or staph or rare flesh eating disease found in the home. The show host reacts with keen disgust at the smells and sights.

Another show that predates these recent American shows is BBC's How Clean is Your House, which I will admit to watching unhealthy amounts of during the last trimester my first pregnancy. It follows the same plot structure as Hoarders and Hoarding. However this show had a somewhat more lighthearted approach, with two stern but perky matrons to administer scoldings and advice in a kindly fashion. It may have even been the Hoarders / Hoarding producer's inspiration.

Then there's the infamous and unfortunate Collyer brothers.

The Collyer brothers' saga confirms a New Yorker's worst nightmare: crumpled people living in crumpled rooms with their crumpled possessions, the crowded chaos of the city refracted in their homes. It's not that Gothamites hoard more than other people; it's that they have less room to hoard in.

E.L. Doctorow even tackled the subject in his novel Homer & LangleyHere's a video of Doctorow discussing the novel.

There is clearly an obsession with watching or reading about the consequences of overconsumption. There are doubtless thousands of viewers of these shows living in their own versions of these overstuffed, unpleasant spaces. I should be delighted that these programs celebrate the industry I work in, professional organizers, and hold them as saviors to victims of compulsive hoarders. But I am not.

I recognize other forces at play:

  • Availability of cheap goods, to the detriment of the environment as well as the wages paid for that labor.
  • Mental Illness, Dementia, Infirmity or Obesity.
  • People living in isolation, without friends and family to support by intervening with help and assistance in curbing these compulsions.
  • The undiluted misery the person lives in as a result of not being able to afford help or not knowing that there is help to be had. Especially in the case of the elderly.

So today I emailed Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Department of Environmental Geriatrics. They had a NYC Hoarding Task Force in 2003-2005.

I am a professional organizer who once cared for an aunt with advanced stage of dementia. I saw firsthand what her apartment evolved into once her dementia prevented her from making simple day to day decisions. She would box up and bag unopened mail and trash and line her dining room walls with those boxes. Her apartment was unsanitary and over run with bedbugs. This broke my heart and I would like to help others in the hope of preventing accidents and unsafe conditions. I would like to offer to organize a group of professional organizers in the NYC area who can volunteer their services in an ongoing program to help senior citizens or those with dementia to achieve uncluttered, safe homes. Who is the right person or department to present this program?

I'm not sure if anything will come of this query. But I also ask that if anyone who is reading this post has a family member who is struggling, please try to help them. It's possible they don't recognize they have problem and it will take some convincing. It's certainly worth it to try, don't you think?

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