A 50-year-old businesswoman from southern California recently walked into her 83-year-old father's apartment and nearly passed out from what greeted her. "I thought I had mistakenly entered an unlocked a storage area," she said. "There were stacks and stacks of papers, magazines, books -- literally from the floor to the ceiling."
The woman, who agreed to speak to The Huffington Post under the condition of anonymity, said that what she saw simply stunned her to accept this reality: "My father is a hoarder. And we had no idea."
Her father, who had rented the apartment for about 10 years, had created a narrow walk-way through the tall piles of paper. The opening led from the front door to his desk and to a tiny sleeping area. Another narrow aisle was created to get into the bathroom, also littered with stacks of papers. Every inch of floor and counter space in the one-bedroom apartment was covered by heaps of papers, she said.
For years, holiday visits with her dad -- a retired electrical engineer with an IQ so high that it qualified him for MENSA -- were always at her house. On the occasions she and her family went to see him in San Jose, they would stay at a hotel and drive over to pick him up for meals and activities. He was always waiting for them outside the building, something she attributed to his eagerness to see his grandkids, not the fact that the condition of his apartment was something he preferred to keep hidden.
"He is a paper hoarder," she said. No pizza boxes or food take-out containers, no bugs scurrying around, no dirty dishes left unwashed in the sink for months. Just paper. She said her father was apparently incapable of walking into the building's management office without grabbing a handful of rental brochures.
"I found literally hundreds of rental brochures," said his daughter. "He lives there. What possible use could he have for even a single brochure, let alone hundreds of them?" She also found reams of paper placemats from restaurants, stacks of brochures from every possible vendor and every stitch of mail that he had gotten for years -- including newspaper circulars and supermarket ads that were long out of date.
She came to open her Dad's apartment door that day because he had been hospitalized and needed some things from home. Upon discharge from the hospital, he spent several months in a rehabilitation center and she used the time to clean out the apartment. Arrangements are being made for him to move to an assisted living facility near her for treatment of pre-Alzheimer's dementia.
"I walked in that day and my reaction was just utter horror and sadness that anyone could live like that and not reach out for help," she said.
The case is actually pretty typical, says Smith College psychologist Randy Frost, an expert on obsessive-compulsive disorder and a pioneer in the field of compulsive hoarding. He estimates there are as many as four million hoarders nationwide and many, many more who fall on the spectrum of "problematic cluttering behavior."
Many, he said, are older Americans who experienced deprivation during the Great Depression or WW II. Frost is co-author of the book, "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things." They save everything, keep broken appliances, won't part with worthless items -- empty cereal boxes, rubber bands, paper bags from the market -- and acquire more things regularly at garage sales. Soon, they can't move freely among their possessions, but still they are unable to part with any of it.
When Frost first began his research in the 1990s, little was known about people who lived with stacks of old newspapers and old clothes they hadn't worn in decades, or who were unable to throw out years of junk mail advertising timeshares for sale in Florida. He noted that today, many boomers are slamming head on into the problem when they go to clean out their parents' homes and discover a side of them they hadn't seen before.
Frost says sometimes a one-two punch occurs. The adult children cleaning out their parents' debris bring much of it home with them. It's an emotional time, Frost said, and they are confronting what may be the beginning of an eventual loss of their parent. They figure they can sort through this stuff later, at a calmer time. But what's actually occurring is that they are starting to become hoarders themselves. Many succumb to the temptation to pack up their elderly parent's belongings and transfer it to their own homes or a garage or storage area, where it sits untouched for years.
Frost suggests there may be a genetic connection to hoarding, said Frost, and this transference pattern is something to be aware of. Hoarding, he said, is associated with a number of things including difficulty processing information, attentional focus, the inability to make decisions when confronted with a large amount of information and a failure of categorization -- in which you see can't see the commonality of objects and they instead all look unique to you.
As a person ages, the tendency becomes worse. Many times it spins out of control after a non-hoarding spouse dies or becomes incapacitated and is no longer able to control the hoarding.
What can an adult child do to help a hoarding parent?
The single most critical thing, says Frost, is to get inside the house. If you are regularly visiting, the hoarding problems can be kept in check. If you suspect hoarding, approach the topic with sensitivity instead of judgment. Don't call what you see "junk" or "clutter" because the hoarder sees value in each possession. It's better to ask, "What is it you can't do that you would like to do?" suggests Frost. Stay neutral and offer to help.
While various social service agencies exist to insure both the health and safety of the elderly as well as the housing units themselves, be aware that once you bring them into the picture, there is likely to be a great deal of stress put on the hoarder. A tenant who hoards isn't a desirable tenant, and how stressful will it be for Dad to lose his home?
Most hoarders are not selective. They aren't collecting dolls or stamps, but hoarding all objects, says Frost. The one exception is animal hoarders, who begin to believe that they and only they can provide the love and care necessary for large quantities of dogs or cats or birds.
Frost recommends the International OCD Foundation as a resource for support and information.
How do you know if your parents are hoarders? Check out the slideshow below; if their living space looks like image #4 or higher, then the clutter is impinging on their lives and you're encouraged to seek help, Frost said. (Images used with permission from Oxford University Press, which published Frost's earlier book "Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring.")
Follow Ann Brenoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AnnBrenoff