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Hoarding may be increasing because of aging population, scarce mental health care


Many of us have extra clutter lying around the house. For some, this becomes hoarding. Experts say that problem is growing as the population ages and as mental health care is in short supply. Here's Rose Conlon of our member station KMUW.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: Before Beck Bright-Samarzia gets down to work, she suits up.

BECK BRIGHT-SAMARZIA: I always wear a back brace, and I always wear an N95, and then I glove up because, you know, you never know.

CONLON: The owner of the Wichita business Paper Shift ICT is helping one of her clients clean out the house her family has lived in for generations.

JAMIE PARK: And here's an empty container, too.


CONLON: Today they're tackling the basement, sorting through a half-century's worth of memories, relics and some junk.

BRIGHT-SAMARZIA: That's paperwork. These are electronics. I need to go through this box. OK.

CONLON: The client is Jamie Park. Her family has long struggled with hoarding. Now she's trying to break the cycle and make the space livable for her and her kids. Bright-Samarzia recently helped her clear out the laundry room so she could reach the washing machine. Park had been going to laundromats for years.

PARK: I couldn't see the floor growing up, so this is crazy to me.

CONLON: Bright-Samarzia is a former therapist. She started the business after she noticed a lack of resources for people who struggle with clutter. People call her after a family member dies and it's too overwhelming to sort through the house alone. Others have mental illnesses or physical limitations that make it hard to deal with their own belongings. The work can be intense physically and emotionally.

BRIGHT-SAMARZIA: For some people, throwing things away is like throwing away a part of themselves. So let's find a way to honor that and support you through it, because it's the support of the emotional side that is an enormous component to this.

CONLON: Problems with hoarding may be more well-known now because of popular TV shows like "Hoarders."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That is quite the entrance to a house. This is pretty extreme. Oh, my God.

CONLON: But Wichita therapist Nancy Trout thinks popular media has it all wrong. She runs a monthly support group for people with hoarding disorders. She's learned that getting rid of the stuff is only part of the answer. People also need help addressing underlying mental health issues.

NANCY TROUT: Anxiety and depression are two of the biggest mental health issues that go along with hoarding. And the stuff becomes kind of a protective nest.

CONLON: But it can be hard to get help. Around 160 million Americans live in a mental health provider shortage area, including more than half of all Kansans. Experts worry that combined with an aging population could fuel a rise in hoarding in the coming decades. Randy Frost is a professor emeritus of psychology at Smith College. He says around 2.5% of the general population has a hoarding disorder, but the prevalence is a lot higher among older adults.

RANDY FROST: The behavior itself appears to start early in life. But most of the time when we see someone with a clinically significant hoarding problem, they tend to be older.

CONLON: Census data shows the number of Americans 65 and older grew 39% between 2010 and 2020. In Kansas, the 65-plus cohort is poised to grow more than twice as fast as youth over the next 50 years, according to Wichita State University projections. Trout says untreated hoarding among older adults puts more pressure on social services. And it can create problems for the broader community.

TROUT: And if someone falls and first responders have to get in to get them, it's hard to get through the house. It's a huge fire danger. It could also cause problems for the neighbors.

CONLON: She and other experts want to see Kansas invest more in addressing the unique problems older adults face in managing their homes. They point to San Francisco, which runs a peer support program where recovered hoarders learn how to help others who are struggling. And they say officials need to do more to ensure people of all ages can access mental health care to help treat problems before they become serious.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "MAINE 262") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rose Conlon