My late father was a squirrel. And a bouquet. And a magpie. And a bargain hunter.
These are the four accepted categories of a problem “hamster”. And Dad ticked every box.
For those who haven’t seen the Hoarder shows on TV, we’re talking about people who accumulate things to the point that it affects the use and enjoyment of their own homes, and their physical and mental health.
According to a 2015 poll, 38 percent of Irish people said they had a problem with hoarding, while 36 percent said their partners’ hoarding habits affected them negatively.
This suggests that up to half of Irish households could be affected to some degree by hoarding trends.
Global research suggests that 2.6 to 5 percent of people have extreme hoarding problems; that is, to the extent that it actually physically impedes movement in and use of their own home and affects their physical and/or mental health.
Hoarding on the lower end of the scale hampers the spring cleaning that is traditional at this time of year. But it can also strain relationships, especially when one partner is a hoarder and one is not.
Dad passed away in October and last month we had the poignant task of cleaning out his three bedroom townhouse.
In “phase one” (there’s more to do) we backfilled a 20 cubic meter trough with debris and about half again to the level of the lip. So that’s 30 cubic meters of material. To put this in context, commercial waste companies equate 30 cubic feet to 245 full 33-gallon garbage bags.
What’s really incredible is that before he died, Dad was able to tell you exactly where to find a single object out of that mountain of thousands piled around his house.
The hoarder category leader says the “squirrel” hoarder collects stuff because “you never know when you might need it.”
The ‘Magpie’ collects certain kinds of preferred item types in the same way that the bird likes shiny items for its own sake. Dad’s “favorite” items included multi-purpose tools like pocket knives and flashlights. So he had dozens of each.
Next comes the “bargain hunter,” who accumulates things because they’re a bargain to buy, not because they actually need them or have a use for them.
After all, the “ostrich” is just afraid to throw anything away at all and will bury its head in the sand when the stuff builds up to a problem level.
Dad was every one of them.
His house had two bedrooms filled with accumulated items. Both of his kitchen tables were piled high with random items and stuff was stacked underneath.
His living room was characterized by similar stacks, so sometimes when you visited him, only part of the three-seater sofa he was sitting on had a (fatherly) space vacant.
Unlike the TV Horter from Buried alive or Horter SOS his hall was free and one could always walk around his house. But things were piling up everywhere, even in his bathtub.
Also, unlike the universally miserable guys seen on TV, he was enjoying life very much. He was sociable, always on the go, and usually optimistic. He didn’t give a damn about what other people thought of his hoarding, and he never shied away from welcoming people into his home.
But his darling hindered him greatly in other ways. We couldn’t bring his grandkids to visit until they were older because his house was a dangerous place for toddlers who could dig up heaps of weed killers, bush saws, axes or piles of medicines to treat his health conditions (he hoarded those too). .
In recent years, as his health has deteriorated, the debris has become a hindrance and a danger to him.
I once went into his house and found him asleep on his sofa with a very large electric heater turned on and balanced precariously on a two foot high pile of papers at the other end of the same sofa. If he dropped an expensive hearing aid, there was little chance of finding it again.
As his health deteriorated, we siblings formed a united front to clean up and tidy his living room and kitchen so he could experience the benefits of having at least some clean living quarters.
I’ve never seen him so traumatized. Like Solomon, he sat from dawn to dusk as we queued to hand him one questionable item (a 10-year-old calendar) after another (a broken can opener) that we got him to pass judgment on .
And we had to argue the throw for each individual item. “Yeah, but what do you REALLY need it for?” We stuck with that until the two rooms were totally clear, tidy, and functional. He was really fed up.
Two weeks later, those rooms were back in the same messy state. On top of that, we think he really had to work hard to achieve that. point taken. We didn’t try again.
Conversely, he enjoyed hoarding. Accumulation was like a sport.
He and his buddies (there was a hoarding team) would read the preferred Lidl or Aldi catalogs the same way racegoers study the form. They planned their target objects and simultaneously distributed them to different outlets.
When a bargain gang went into the money, he called the rest and took group orders. They usually bought large batches of food and drinks such as steaks, wines, fruit juices, honey or chocolates at clear prices.
But the center aisles of random household appliances, tools, kits, and outdoor recreation and sporting goods were the problem.
These piled up at his house, some never being removed from the boxes.
He took things out of containers to the extent that neighbors would just leave their rubbish on his doorstep instead of paying for it to be taken away. Once he came home and was pleased to find a couple of freestanding doors in his front yard that had been stacked by an anonymous coincidence.
When we got to his attic last month, among the rubble was a 1980s rattan garden sofa with banjax and two matching armchairs. I had last seen these in the 1990s when I threw them myself into a shipping container I rented. So I had to kick her out twice in three decades.
The sad thing was that almost everything he kept in his house had to be disposed of. landfill.
I also have this hamster gene. I find it difficult to throw things away, especially when it’s about an important person or event. Or whether it has given me “loyal” service for years.
I certainly have cluttered shelves and closets, but I also have an annual “clean-up” regime of which I fill a small trash can.
I’m one of the 38 percent hoarders, but I’m not a hardcore 5 percent fanatic like Dad. One in 20 Irish people who hoard so much that it impacts their lives very negatively may also hoard animals or (particularly in rural areas) old machinery and vehicles.
Recent studies suggest that problem hoarders may attribute totemic/talismanic qualities to objects and view a collection as part of their own personality or essence. Objects are like “friends”.
And if Dad ever loaned you anything, he was always on your case to get it back.
Research now suggests that cognitive therapy is the way forward. So if you have a problem hoarder in your midst, this is the level of understanding required.
And it goes well beyond freak show TV or evictions.
https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/homes/mark-keenan-are-you-a-squirrel-an-ostrich-or-a-magpie-the-impact-of-hoarding-inside-irelands-homes-41531876.html Mark Keenan: Are you a “squirrel”, an “ostrich” or a “magpie”? The Effects of Hoarding in Ireland’s Homes