Since the introduction of A&E’s “Hoarders”, viewers have been disturbed and fascinated by the unclean, cluttered, and dangerous living conditions that people with compulsive behaviors build around themselves. Calling someone a “hoarder” can be insensitive; it reduces all of what he or she is to a debilitating compulsive disorder. Oftentimes, this condition goes undiagnosed until after the person suffering from it passes away.
What if you discovered that a family member or friend in your life was a compulsive “hoarder” after he or she passed away? How would you go about restoring order to an environment as cluttered and chaotic as those broadcasted on A&E?
Discovering the hoard – and the emotional impact
It is not uncommon for family members to discover that someone hoarded until after they die. Finding out that your recently departed family member or friend lived in a hoarding situation can be a psychologically traumatic experience.
Daniel Allen recounted when he had to tend to the estate of his recently departed 92 year old grandmother in Indiana. He was shocked to see the state of her home; clothes, books, and unused Christmas presents filled her closets, and one room was filled to the ceiling with “books, photos, and news clippings”. He was upset with himself, upset with her, and felt an overwhelming sense of despair.
In such a situation, it is important to remain calm and assess the property carefully. First, you be compelled to throw everything away. Just getting rid of everything allows you to escape the situation as soon as possible. On the other hand, you might feel the urge throw nothing away. When Daniel began throwing away some of his grandmother’s possessions, he recalled that “it felt like a bit of her memory was being lost”. However, Daniel was grounded enough to carefully inventory belongings in the home.
How to handle the estate
Reflecting, Daniel said, “In the clutter of an extreme collector or horder, about 99 percent of the time there’s something there, underneath a pile or hidden in the clutter, that will bring value to the estate when sold”. There may be valuables hidden in the clutter that were intended for you or others.
This is not heartless. This is being pragmatic. Hoarders can complicate estate planning and administration.
It is not uncommon, especially in times of economic security, for people to hide money or valuables in unlikely places. An estate auctioneer said about 10% of the estates he deals with were inhabited by “money hiders”. You must be thorough with your search. It will be emotionally taxing to sort through the remains, but it is important to handle the estate correctly.
If you opt to hire a company to clean the property, cleanup and restoration businesses will typically sort possessions to help you recover items that are of value to you. Be sure to bring up any concerns you may have with the company regarding potentially hidden important items.
Of course, the remaining clutter needs to be cleaned. A helpful post on the “Hoarding” subreddit offers practical advice on how to clean such environments. The dangers present when cleaning such a residence should not be understated; merely tripping on the clutter could lead to a serious injury. Among other useful pieces of info, the thread offers tips such as separating items into different piles (keep/donate/trash/recycle) and how to properly dispose of medicine from the bathroom.
Another issue to consider when dealing with the aftermath of a hoarding situation is property damage to the home itself. Adding to the financial stress of this difficult time, homeowners who are known to be hoarders often have their homeowners insurance pulled, or any claims relating to damage to possessions or property denied.
If animal hoarding was involved, or if a rat infestation resulted from the cluttered living environment, this damage can be exponentially worse.
One of the worst incidents of animal hoarding of all time was uncovered in Pasadena, CA, in 2010. A woman named Tanya Regan kept 238 cats in a storage unit. She did not clean after the felines. This situation was only investigated after several neighbors reported horrible smells emanating from the property. Among the debris was a layer of trash, several overflowing litter boxes, and 36 dead cats.
The cost of restoring the property afterwards is tremendous. Sometimes individuals may try to clean the mess, or they may choose to hire a professional cleaning business to do the dirty work (preferably certified by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration). Depending on the extent of the damage, the financial burden can be hefty. The cost of repairing a house after a pet-hoarding situation can easily add up to thousands of dollars.
Where to go for support
If you find yourself in this difficult situation and need emotional support, you can find nearby qualified therapists, clinics, support groups, and organizations here. Alternatively, you can talk about your experiences and read encouraging words from others at Children of Hoarders.