Q. My husband hoards volumes of “things” — newspapers, multiple copies of computer articles, napkins from every conceivable store, rubber bands, old clothing, plastic food containers, etc. We cannot have guests over because there is no place to sit. He is 65 and retired. What approach would you recommend to get him to “clean house”?
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A. Unfortunately, this problem is hard to control, so you need to do more than just “clean house.” Hoarding is a form of mental illness, probably a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can probably reduce your husband’s hoarding behavior, though the house will never be as clean as you wish.
Some people are naturally messy, some are collectors, some dislike waste, and some find it hard to part with things they might need later. This is perfectly normal. It is also normal to get emotionally attached to some stuff, like photos, books, or other meaningful items.
But some people, like your husband, keep so much stuff of no value that it consumes their living space. In extreme cases, this is a real safety risk. Piled-up papers pose a fire hazard. Rodents and insects have good hiding places. People can trip on piles of junk or get buried underneath them.
Hoarding behavior often exists on a continuum. A life change, such as retirement or widowhood, can intensify such behavior in someone who is already inclined toward it. So your job is to help keep your husband’s behavior in check. But realize that he has little control over his behavior.
Hoarders get emotionally attached to stuff and typically get anxious or angry if you suggest they get rid of some of it. They find emotional value in every last thing, like those plastic food containers you mention. They have trouble making decisions, and can’t sort out what is worth keeping from what is not.
There are even more serious versions of this disorder. Some people hoard garbage or animals. You must have seen occasional news stories about someone whose house is teeming with cats.
Hoarders will not acknowledge there is a problem. They have plenty of excuses — like they haven’t gotten around to cleaning up, or they need to read those old newspapers because they contain valuable information. Yet, they are also embarrassed about the mess.
So cleaning house is not just a matter of making your husband see he has too much stuff and then clearing it out. Even if health officials are called in to clear out a house, the hoarder usually starts collecting soon afterwards, and the house fills up again.
Your husband needs psychiatric intervention to deal with hoarding, just as he would need an oncologist if he had cancer. You can start helping him by doing research online and showing him how he meets the criteria. Hoarding is usually treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy, possibly combined with anti-anxiety medication. These therapies aren’t always fully successful, but they can help.
For less extreme cases, there are also clutter-control books, as well as online groups, that can lend practical help in terms of organizing and making decisions. It is likely you will be able to make some progress over time by cleaning up small areas one at a time and donating unused items so they have a “good” home.
In the meantime, you are entitled to live in a habitable home. So pick a space, like your side of the bedroom or a corner of the living room, and clear it out — even if this means moving piles of junk from one place to another.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Hoarding isn’t just a matter of being messy or liking to collect. It is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that is hard to treat.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.