Compulsive Hoarding: Finding Help for ‘Cat Ladies’ of All Stripes
A huge closet full of clothes. An endless array of shoes. Multiple pets. In popular culture, it’s common to accuse women of “hoarding” certain types of objects. While oftentimes the female pack rat image is merely a joke, there are many instances in which the behavior indicates a serious disorder. Compulsive hoarding, which is often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), is a complex mental illness that affects about 4% of the population.
For those women who hoard – and the people who love them – the behavior can have profound negative effects. The consequences of hoarding range from the loneliness and isolation that stem from being deeply ashamed of the behavior, to the serious health risks of living in an unsanitary home.
If you or a woman in your life is suffering from compulsive hoarding, it’s not a problem to be ignored. Just ask Bill Scheibe, whose elderly mother – a compulsive hoarder – was found buried earlier this year under a pile of garbage inside her home. He alerted the authorities when no one had seen her for a few weeks.
According to the story in the Chicago Tribune on Feb. 15, the decomposing body of Margareta Scheibe was found by emergency workers who had been searching her home for three days. Dressed in hazmat suits, they had a difficult time finding her body in the garbage and other items that filled her home from floor to ceiling.
Scheibe’s husband had tried to keep the home livable. Sadly, her hoarding behavior gradually spiraled out of control after he died in 2010.
Hoarding Differences Between Men and Women
Studies have revealed several differences between men and women when it comes to hoarding. Despite all the news and TV stories about female hoarders, men are actually more likely to hoard than women, with the numbers being nearly twice as high for men. Men also tend to start at a younger age than their female counterparts.
Young girls often start hoarding things like old school items and clothing. The progression can be slow for both genders, ratcheting up over years or even decades. However, some women start hoarding after a stressful, life-changing event, such as the breakup of a marriage, the death of a loved one, or a serious illness.
While hoarding often co-occurs with other psychiatric disorders, those co-existing conditions tend to be different in women than in men. Women who hoard, for example, are more likely to also have PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), social anxiety disorder, or body dysmorphic disorder. Male hoarders, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder.
Another important difference between hoarding in men and women is that women are more likely to seek and accept help for their behavior. That can be a hopeful sign if your mom, wife, or daughter struggles with hoarding.
We’ve all read the stories about animal control officials confiscating cats from women’s homes. Many of us have even chuckled at cat lady jokes. While the image of the old woman with more cats than she can count seems to be a stereotype, there is research that suggests older women are, in fact, more likely to hoard animals. One study of animal hoarders found that most people who hoard animals are women, and nearly half of them are over the age of 60. In addition, more than 50% of them lived alone.
The serious problems with animal hoarding involve more than simply owning a large number of cats, dogs or other pets. In many cases, the animals are sick or malnourished. This may be due in part to neglect and overcrowded conditions. Homes of animal hoarders are often unsanitary and may contain pet waste, decaying food, and, in severe cases, dead animals. Also, up to one-fourth of animal hoarding cases involve people who claim they’re rescuing the animals. The hoarders may see themselves as the animals’ savior or only hope of survival.
Women who compulsively hoard don’t just focus on animals. Like men, they can accumulate items they regard as “treasures,” or things they view as too valuable to throw away. Others start hoarding out of a practical mindset; for example, they might say, “I don’t need that book today, but I might need it tomorrow.” Regardless of the items that you or a loved one hoards, if it’s making life difficult, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.
Hoarding is a complex condition with devastating effects. Treatment is available, and may include one or more of the following:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: This type of therapy focuses on identifying the thought patterns and behaviors that lead to and perpetuate hoarding. Once the maladaptive patterns are identified, a skilled therapist can help you make positive changes that help reduce and eliminate the behavior. Recovering hoarders will also learn decision-making and organizational skills so they can make reasonable decisions moving forward. Unfortunately, hoarding is a challenging condition to treat and therapy isn’t always effective. This is why it’s crucial to work with a mental health professional.
- Medication: Medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are sometimes used as part of the treatment for hoarding. However, prescription drugs aren’t always beneficial. They are most often used in conjunction with therapy.
- Treatment for additional disorders: Since women who hoard often suffer from other disorders, like social phobia, OCD, or PTSD, it’s important that co-existing disorders be treated as well.
- Clean up: Cleaning up the home is an essential part of treatment, although it may be met with fierce resistance. While family and friends often have the urge to clean out the house in one fell swoop, it may be more helpful to take baby steps. For instance, you might start by cleaning out a bathroom to allow for good personal hygiene or a kitchen to create a safe food-prep environment. Critical repairs will also be a priority, since it’s common for hoarders to neglect essential home maintenance. Your treatment provider can help devise the best clean-up strategy, which may include using a professional organizer.
If you are a compulsive hoarder, or you love a woman who is, you know how serious this condition can become. That clutter, whether it comes from cats or trash, smothers lives and relationships. But professional help can guide a hoarder out from under the pile and into the light of living again.