Thursday, January 21, 2010

When It Isn’t Just Clutter Anymore


She was a retired college professor, living alone in a New York apartment that had become unmanageable. When she called Bergfeld’s Estate Clearance Service for help, Kristin Bergfeld had trouble entering the apartment; the professor had to move objects out of the way simply to open her front door.

Inside, Ms. Bergfeld found a familiar scene: a person overwhelmed by her possessions, many of them unused or useless. “You know those big plaid plastic bags people use for laundry?” she recalled. “About 100 of those, filled with teaching materials from the last 10 years. Clothing items she’d bought from catalogs, 10 of each in different colors with the price tags still on them. Lots and lots of bottles for recycling — maybe 30 large trash bags — that never made it out.”
The stuff was stacked three feet deep. In the bedroom, it reached the ceiling. The professor could no longer use her bed; she slept in a cleared space on her kitchen floor. “It’s a heart-breaker every time I see it,” Ms. Bergfeld said. “This is an intelligent, engaging person who was hugely embarrassed and ashamed.”

Hoarding — a compulsive need to acquire and inability to discard items of no apparent value, to the point where one’s ability to function becomes impaired — is a disorder that begins early in life, researchers are learning. But the symptoms appear to increase with each decade of age and so, of course, does the sheer amount of stuff amassed.

What do elders hoard? Junk mail. Plastic containers. “Newspapers are very common,” said Julie Wetherell, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has written about the phenomenon. “Plastic bags from the grocery store. Some people hoard food. Or animals — the people with a hundred cats. If something is on sale at the dollar store, instead of buying three or four boxes, hoarders buy 40.” ..." More