During the 2020 shelter in place ordinance, I read a lot about people staying home and finally tackling their organizing projects. But the anxiety associated with the pandemic has also exacerbated some people’s tendency toward hoarding, something I didn’t consider until recently.
Of course, there was the panic buying of toilet paper and paper towels that has been joked about ad infinitum. Fear of scarcity is one reason people hoard, but the scarcity of paper products was a real phenomenon and some stockpiling was annoying but understandable. The hoarding I’m referring to is much less rational.
According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization Hoarding Scale, a Level 1 household is “normal,” with some clutter, and is clean and livable, but perhaps with the occasional pet odors. A Level 2 household might have more problems with pet or pest damage, may have some doorways blocked by clutter and may also have one important appliance, like a washer, dryer or refrigerator that hasn’t worked in some time.
Levels 3, 4 and 5 continue in this mode but with increased clutter and structural damage (leaks, broken items) in the home as the levels go up. A person with a Level 5 hoarding problem can sometimes not live in his own home because there is nowhere to sleep and the bathroom and kitchen are unusable.
The person whose hoarding is most likely to have worsened during Covid is at about Level 2 or 3. Anxiety about letting anyone into the home to help intensifies the problem. A handy person isn’t hired to fix things as they break, a cleaning person is not hired to keep up with weekly scrub downs and an organizer is not hired to help gain control of the clutter. Even if the person is not going out to shop, there is a whole world online that delivers, adding more stuff to the situation.
I have not witnessed much success, even with therapy, in Level 4 or 5 hoarders, but at Level 2 and 3 I’ve seen firsthand some complete turn arounds, with some former hoarders even embracing minimalism. Supportive families are crucial but it is up to the individual to wake up to the fact that life is waiting on the other side of hoarding.
If you find yourself or a loved one struggling with clutter that has increased during the pandemic, try limiting your news and social media intake. Even a few minutes of news can noticeably increase my anxiety level (especially during what used to be called “summer” and “harvest” and is now called “fire season”). I’m limiting my news to reading the Register and just the headlines of one national newspaper. I find that’s usually plenty. Too much news is mental clutter.
Delete social media groups or “friends” who insist on posting bad news or things you find disturbing. People collect and hoard “friends” and “followers”; let go of these if they don’t make you feel good just as you would a too tight pair of shoes.
Since pandemic anxiety relates to health, someone whose hoarding is becoming unmanageable might respond well to arguments about the health benefits of having less clutter. Beyond the cleanliness aspect, clutter makes the home an obstacle course, full of shin banging, toe snagging tripping hazards. If the person is at all interested in living in their home into old age, they might agree that the clutter is becoming hazardous and needs to be addressed. Having the hard conversations about hoarding and creating a plan to deal with it is essential before the first magazine can be recycled or worn out sneakers can be tossed.
Think about what it would take to find a level of comfort in having people come into the home to help clean, declutter and fix. Proof of vaccination, masks, gloves, hand sanitizing and other precautions would be fine with most professionals who work in private residences.
Getting out of the house entirely might be the best anxiety alleviator of all. Interacting with community, exercising in a group, spending time in nature and getting into service are all great for a refreshed perspective.
For more information on hoarding, go to www.challengingdisorganization.org.