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Hoarding out of loneliness, need for comfort

Compulsive hoarding can be symptomatic of a chronic mental illness.

Psychiatrist in private practice, Dr Adrian Wang, explains that people collect what others usually think of as junk in extreme cases of hoarding.

It can start mildly with collecting paper clips, for instance.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, who is also a psychiatrist with his own practice, explains that it is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Sufferers hoard as a source of comfort.

Dr Wang explains: "They may think 'it's just in case, you never know when you may need it'. It is a security blanket, and this behaviour may be more pronounced when the person is stressed."

Dr Lim notes there can be triggers, such as getting evicted, getting divorced or the death of a loved one.

Another major trigger is loneliness.

"The person may hoard out of loneliness for comfort, and they may be lonely because they hoard. It is a vicious circle."

Treatment options include medication and counselling. According to Dr Lim, patients struggle to explain their use when asked why the items they keep are useful. But they face substantial anxiety when it comes to throwing things out.

A single community service group, the Touch Seniors Activity Centre in Geylang Bahru, saw a total of 30 cases in 2014 alone.

Of them, 16 declined cleaning help.

Ms Julia Lee, 52, director of Touch Seniors Activity Centre, says it takes a lot of persuasion.


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"We try to start by removing little things and establishing rapport with them," says Ms Lee.

"Some hoarders may like free items, such as rations. They keep but they never use, so there are bags of rice that have been kept for years, to the point of decay."

She adds that others may develop an emotional attachment to the items, based on how they acquired them.

Employees of Seaco, a container-leasing company, volunteered with Touch to clean some of the homes.

A spokesman for Seaco explains: "Some of the units were very dirty and crowded, and after six to ten hours of hard work, the difference is phenomenal.

"We plan to go back and help again. It was challenging but rewarding to see the difference."

The experts feel more can be done to help hoarders here. The issue? Where to draw the line to go in, with or without the consent of the home owner.

"If the patient refuses treatment and is not deemed to be an immediate danger to himself or others, treatment cannot be enforced," says Dr Lim.

He mentions that some countries have Community Treatment Orders, which grant more teeth to medical practitioners to provide help to those who need it.

He thinks that a similar act may allow treatment to be provided earlier to compulsive hoarders.

Meanwhile, his advice to the family members of hoarders is to be understanding.

"It is a medical condition, it requires treatment and we cannot be judgmental as they are not deliberately trying to be difficult."