Understanding is the Key

How does hoarding begin?

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.

The cold, drizzling rain was turning to snow as we stood watching my son unsuccessfully try key after key in the lock to the door of the enormous blue shed. What would we find when the door was finally open?


Just before Mother’s Day, May 2012, a coroner called with the sad news that my aunt and uncle had been found dead in their camper home. I was asked to come as soon as possible to collect some of their personal papers.

Arriving two days later to a little town high in the Colorado Rockies, my son and son-in-law and I ultimately followed the coroner’s car up the rutted, tangled track to my deceased relatives’ property. Rounding the last corner, we were struck with the sight of a large collection of broken-down cars and machinery which littered the area. Overwhelming the entire scene was a big blue shed against which sat a tiny camper-trailer—my aunt and uncle’s home for many years and the one in which they had died.

The camper’s interior was almost completely obstructed by boxes, books, trash, old food, and clothes, with only a narrow path leading to a miniscule bedroom at the back.

After a time-consuming, thorough search, the key to the big blue shed was finally located and the door opened. Immediately a sad-looking black cat dashed out, and we were engulfed by the strong odor of cat urine. With the aid of a couple of flashlights we peered into the dark interior. What a sight met our curious gaze. The entire building was full of stuff. Boxes, debris, cans, papers, old furniture, a broken-down organ, building materials, lumber, machine parts, bedding, clothing, two old cars—the entire interior was piled high with so much stuff. Narrow walkways trailed between the piles like a surreal maze


Almost everyone collects things to some degree. However, most of us buy and accumulate more than we really need, filling closets and cupboards to capacity. The mental disorder called compulsive hoarding is an overwhelming urge to collect and keep mundane objects even when the accumulation takes over one’s life. For forty-some years, my aunt and uncle had crammed piles of things into the large shed, their tiny living quarters, an unfinished house on the same property, and a commercial storage unit in town.

Most hoarders are also uncontrollable shoppers. Many of the items in my aunt and uncle’s piles were still in original packaging, unopened and unused, with price tags still attached. Hoarders are mentally incapable of throwing things out. As stuff accumulates, their relationships are often compromised, family members may move out, and friendships are lost. Many hoarders are extremely distressed over their situation and become reclusive or depressed.


Scientific theories try to explain hoarding to some degree. However there is still much mystery surrounding this disorder. Originally, it was thought to be an obsessive-compulsive condition. But new research suggests hoarding may be a unique cognitive disorder instead. A hoarder’s brain may have difficulty processing information. They may feel a sense of emotional security in having many things. Some fear they are losing part of themselves if they part with a possession. Others may feel an overpowering sense of guilt over discarding something useful.


Another risk factor can be stress caused by a life-changing event which results in significant personal loss—such as the destruction of property during a severe storm, or the loss of relationship as in a divorce or the death of a loved one. Accidents with significant personal injury can have the same effect.

The last time I saw my aunt and uncle alive was shortly after their marriage years ago. They were young, in love, and very happy. Several years later, they were both involved in a horrific car accident. My uncle was thrown from the vehicle, striking the curb of the sidewalk and suffering a traumatic frontal lobe head injury. They gradually moved farther and farther away from family and friends, eventually isolating themselves in the Colorado Rockies.

Concerned family members who sent cards, letters, and packages received no response. Neighbors, family, and local church members who attempted to visit were discouraged by my uncle’s sour, unwelcoming attitude and his habit of carrying a gun.


Medical professionals don’t fully understand the complexities of this disorder, but they believe it is an incurable condition. The key to helping a hoarder begins with understanding that it is a deep-seated cognitive malfunction. Hoarding can also be hereditary, with symptoms evident from childhood.

If you know someone who has this disorder, here are a few suggestions which may aid in your efforts to be supportive and helpful.

1. Provide non-judgmental friendship and a ready, listening ear.

2. Be available to assist if the person indicates a desire to explore therapy or counseling.

3. Be ready to support and cheer them on as they attempt to complete tasks given by the therapist.

4. Be extremely patient.

5. Expect setbacks. Continue to be encouraging and supportive.

6. Pray for the person and trust God’s guidance in your efforts to help.

7. Remember that compulsive hoarding is virtually incurable. Your friend or family member’s therapy will likely focus on how to best manage hoarding impulses.


My aunt and uncle are an extreme case example. They lived into their early nineties. It was heartbreaking that they died together all alone of sickness and hypothermia in their unheated camper-trailer. We were comforted to find Bibles and reading materials indicating a faith which hopefully was sustaining in their life of hardship.

We know God is merciful and loving toward His children. He understands that we are all broken and made of dust. Our ultimate hope is in Him!

For more information, go to www.mayoclinic.org and search for “hoarding.” Other online resources are also available.

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.