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When Nothing Goes to Waste: the Mystery of Obsessive Hoarding


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VOICE ONE:

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Bob Doughty. On our program this week, we tell about a mental disorder called Compulsive hoarding syndrome. It is more than a health disorder. It also is a public safety issue.

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VOICE ONE:

Millions of people in the United States are enjoying the return of spring. During this season, many Americans do what is known as “spring cleaning.” They open the windows of their homes to let in fresh air. They use cleaning products that make their homes smell nice. And, they organize their belongings.

Some Americans have developed a strong interest in cleaning up their homes. This also can be called removing clutter. Clutter is a disorganized collection of things. To remove clutter means to throw away the things you do not want. Then, organize the things you have decided to keep.

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In recent years, it has become easy to find information on how to attack clutter. There are books, magazines and even television programs on the subject. Specialty stores sell containers, boxes and shelves for storing things around the house.

Some Americans pay people to come to their home to remove clutter. Such people provide advice on what to keep and what to throw away.

They also help with organizing things. However, their services can be costly. The services of a professional organizer can cost between forty dollars and two hundred dollars an hour.

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Some people have serious problems with clutter. They suffer a mental disorder called compulsive hoarding syndrome. Hoarding is the gathering of objects and not being able to throw them away. Most people would say the objects are useless or worthless. However, the hoarder considers them things that could be useful some day. He or she may develop an emotional connection to such things.

Hoarders are afraid to throw away things. Yet, they continue to bring more and more objects into their homes. They may save things such as newspapers, clothing, old food and even animals.

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Hoarders live among so much clutter it may endanger their physical health. Dirt, insects, and bacteria that form over a period of time can cause sickness.

Safety experts say the homes of hoarders often are unsafe. A room filled with newspapers, for example, can cause floor supports to break down. In many cases, a room is filled from top to bottom with useless things. There is only a small space to walk from one end of the room to the other.

VOICE ONE:

One of the most famous hoarding cases involved two brothers in New York City. Homer and Langley Collyer were found dead in their home in nineteen forty-seven. Langley Collyer was buried under what appeared to be a mountain of old newspapers. The weight of the newspapers crushed him. Langley was Homer’s caretaker. Medical experts believed Langley had been dead for several days before his brother Homer died of starvation.

Police found the home was filled with thousands of unused books, pieces of wood, and skins from large fruits and vegetables. The two brothers also saved pipes and very large automobile parts.

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VOICE TWO:

In recent years, mental health experts have studied compulsive hoarding syndrome. Yet, the disorder is still difficult for most people to understand.

Hoarding can have a severe effect on the family of a hoarder. Family members who share a home with the hoarder cannot understand why their loved one keeps so many useless things. They say the hoarder should make a greater effort to keep the home clean and organized.

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However, it is not that simple. Hoarding is most commonly connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder, or O.C.D. O.C.D. causes someone to have ideas that interfere with his or her daily activities. Such persons act on these ideas, even when they know the resulting actions are senseless.

For example, fear of being dirty may cause people with O.C.D. to wash their hands again and again. They may inspect things repeatedly, like making sure all electrical devices are turned off. Hoarders save things because they are afraid to throw something away that might be important.

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Sanjaya Saxena is a research scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine. He says hoarders have high levels of uneasiness, depression and a need to be perfect.

Recently, Professor Saxena led a study at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Institute. The study involved sixty-two adults. Twelve of them had obsessive-compulsive disorder with hoarding actions. Thirty-three others had O.C.D. with mild or no evidence of hoarding. Seventeen others had no signs of the disorder.

The researchers used images from a process called Positron Emission Tomography to measure brain activity. They compared images of the brains of hoarders to those from the other persons with O.C.D.

The hoarders had lower activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulated gyrus. This area helps to control decision-making and the ability to solve problems.

The study found that different medicines could possibly improve the success of treatment. The American Journal of Psychiatry published the findings. More studies are planned.

VOICE ONE:

Randy Frost is a psychologist at Smith College in Massachusetts. He also has studied hoarding. Professor Smith says it is more than a mental disorder. He says hoarding is a public health problem. Collecting waste, food or materials that can cause fires creates serious health risks.

In the United States, hoarding violates laws that were created to protect public safety and property. Some cities have formed groups to deal with the problems caused by hoarding. Each group usually has representatives from one or more government agencies.

Agency officials say they often hear about hoarders from citizens who live near someone affected with the disorder. The citizens no longer want to see broken household equipment or old clothing lying on property near their homes.

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There also are hoarders who collect cats, dogs or other animals. Most animal hoarders believe they are rescuing the animals with the purpose of caring for them. However, hoarders do not realize when they have too many animals. The hoarders are really doing more harm than good. They may not be able to provide medical care for the animals. Some animals may not be washed or fed.

Officials have been shocked at the condition of the homes of animal hoarders. Floors were covered with animal wastes. Infectious diseases were a problem. Some animals were found starving, while others had died.

VOICE ONE:

Gary Patronek works at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts. Doctor Patronek says there are several things that help to describe animal hoarding. They include having large numbers of animals and the poor conditions they live in. He also said the hoarder often denies there is a problem.

An animal hoarder usually collects other things, such as clothing or magazines. Experts suspect that many hoarders have had uncaring parents or disorderly lives as children. The animals serve as a way for hoarders to get the love they always wanted. Animal hoarders often claim to love the animals. They cannot deal with the thought that something might happen to the animal.

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Compulsive hoarding syndrome can be treated. However, it is very difficult. The treatment may involve medicines and working with a mental health expert.

The expert helps hoarders to understand their actions of saving useless things. Patients are taught to develop a plan for organizing. They learn how to decide what to throw away. They learn to resist the urge to bring home more things.

Experts suggest taking a picture of the area to be organized before and after the work is completed. They say this will provide the patient with a feeling of progress. They also say the treatment program, changes in the way of thinking, and improved decision-making skills will help the patient in other areas of their life for a long time.

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VOICE ONE:

This program was written by Lawan Davis. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. I’m Faith Lapidus.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English.

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