What Happens When a Hoarder Dies?

Adult children of hoarders are often left to deal with both the physical mess and the emotional toll of their parent's behavior. Here, a Chicago home literally trapped elderly hoarders alive. Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune-MCT-Getty Images

Greg Martin wasn't sure what to expect when his mother died last May, forcing him to return to his childhood home for the first time in nearly 18 years. The house, located on a pleasant block in San Diego, had always been cluttered, but now it was virtually uninhabitable. "There were piles as tall as me, six feet or so," Greg said. "Where there used to be floor, there were trails—a foot and a half high, so you'd be walking on stuff." Greg was forced to navigate through piles of magazines, papers, and books, plastic bags filled with thrift-store purchases, expired medicine bottles and literally tons of clothes. The only "living space" was a small pocket by the front door, where his mother, a colorful and fiercely independent woman, had collapsed shortly before her death at the age of 83. Greg, who has taken a leave of absence from his job, expected that cleaning out the house would take six months. It's now been eight—and counting.

It's a scenario that's all too familiar to children of hoarders, who are burdened with far more than funeral arrangements, probate, and grief. They must also deal with the overwhelming piles of stuff that a hoarding parent accumulated over the years—in apartments, in houses, in storage facilities, and garages. The items themselves may vary, but for many children of hoarders, the result is the same: the unwanted inheritance of a whole lot of nothing.

Greg Martin’s mother lived in this home until her death last year. milbetweenus.blogspot.com

The inclination to hoard typically begins in the teenage years, but experts say it can also be triggered—or made worse—by brain damage, a traumatic life event, or depression. As the hoarders age, the piles grow, gradually eclipsing everything else in their lives.

"I'm dreading the day when the house needs to be cleaned out, more than I dread the day that they leave us," laments Teresa C. of Winnipeg, Canada. Teresa, like several others interviewed for this story, did not want to give her last name because the hoarding is a source of tension in her family. For Teresa, inheriting her aging parents' hoard is a worry for the future.

Hoarding is an extremely complicated mental disorder that generally involves the acquisition of too many items, difficulty getting rid of items, and problems with organization and prioritization. Few statistics exist related to hoarding, because hoarders rarely seek or accept treatment. But shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive, Animal Hoarders have certainly raised awareness and triggered a tidal wave of anecdotal evidence to suggest the illness, often associated with obsessive compulsive disorder, affects millions—either directly or indirectly. Support groups and message boards are flooded with stories about the once-secret life of hoarders and their families, and the constant battles to get the hoarders to understand the impact their illness is having on their loved ones. That impact doesn't end with their passing.

"Nine times out of 10, it's not the hoarder who suffers; it's whoever comes after them to clean up," says a very frustrated Bill L. of Colorado, who's been working to clean his mother's home, located in a different state, for almost five years. (She suffered a stroke and has since moved into assisted living.) It took a dozen people, and eight Dumpsters, to clear out the first floor. Still to go: the second floor, a large attic, a basement, a garage, and a storage locker that Bill says should be easy, but may not be.

Often, hoarders are the only ones who know or understand their system of "organization," keeping stock certificates amid expired receipts or diamonds amid a pile of junk jewelry. For survivors, the stress and strain related to the search itself may simply outweigh the potential of finding any objects with financial or sentimental value. Bill plans to return to his mother's house soon with a professional cleanout crew. "That will mean forgetting about recovering anything of value," he says, "including possible family heirlooms. If we tried to continue sifting the hoard, we'd still be at it 10 years later [and] we'd be jobless, homeless, and insane."

Cory Chalmers, owner of California-based Steri-Clean, which provides help finding hoarding-remediation specialists around the globe, estimates a typical clean-up can range from $5,000 to $20,000 and beyond depending on the severity of the hoard, conditions inside the home, and regulations relating to the disposal of electronics and hazardous materials. His crews occasionally recover items of value that may help offset the cost of the cleanup. But more often than not, it's a simple, yet massive case of quantity over quality. "Most of the elderly hoarders we work with all say the same thing: they're saving this because it all has use, 'I want to give this to my son, and this to my daughter, and this to my grandchild. [But] no one wants that crap," he says, not without sympathy. "What they see as this big investment to pass on is really a big stress on families and not even worth it. A lot of them don't want it. They'd rather just walk away."

For some children of hoarders, however, walking away is not an option. In San Diego, Greg's progress has slowed in recent weeks because he, like many children of hoarders, also feels the pull of random items found amid his mother's hoard. While he's thrown out, recycled, and donated years' worth of clothing, costume jewelry, and obvious trash, he's also kept a lot—including an envelope of clothing tags from items she bought him in 1972, hundreds of vinyl records, and an outdated tape recorder with corroded batteries leaking out the back. Greg views "the project" as an opportunity to acknowledge—and reject—his own hoarding tendencies. (His girlfriend, Sidney, keeps track of his progress on her blog.) He plans to organize the items and sell them, perhaps on eBay or Craigslist or at an estate sale. It's unlikely his mother ever anticipated that her son's life would be put on hold when hers came to an end, but that's exactly what's happened.

"I don't think [hoarders] want to leave their children with a mess," says Dr. Fugen Neziroglu, a psychologist with the Bio Behavioral Institute in New York. "They don't go through in their minds what's going to happen with the clutter, or what the kids are going to do with it." She suggests raising the topic as part of an intervention that's carried out with love and encouragement rather than anger and blame—and capping it off with a visit to a therapist. But as an expert in the field, Dr. Neziroglu is well aware that's easier said than done. There's no magic bullet or wonder drug for hoarding, and relatives often throw in the towel in frustration. They'd rather "wait it out" and deal with the hoard "when the time comes."

Sometimes, however, circumstances dictate a more drastic and immediate approach. Kathleen C. of New Rochelle, N.Y., took her mother's recent stroke as an opportunity to enforce change. Kathleen and her brother entered the home for the first time in years—filling Dumpsters, tossing old furniture, getting five cats declawed, and bringing in contractors to make the home safe and navigable again. At times, her mother gets angry about what's happened to a lot of her stuff, but Kathleen has no regrets. "I can't imagine what would have happened if she'd died and we had to deal with the grief on top of it all. I think it would have been impossible."

For many who inherit the hoard, there's simply no room left to grieve.

Hannah R. Buchdahl is a freelance writer and producer in broadcast news and entertainment. She writes movie reviews under the pseudonym "Mainstream Chick" at Chickflix.net. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahBuch.