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Aging population and scarce mental health care put more Kansans at risk of hoarding

 “For some people, getting rid of things is like throwing away a part of themselves,” said Bright-Samarzia.
Rose Conlon
“For some people, getting rid of things is like throwing away a part of themselves,” said Bright-Samarzia.

Experts worry hoarding is on the rise in Kansas amid a lack of support for those who struggle with it, straining families and communities.

WICHITA, Kansas — Before Beck Bright-Samarzia gets down to work, she suits up: back brace, gloves, N-95 mask.

Inching through one of her clients’ living rooms, between stacks of boxes and bins, she explains she used to wear an industrial-grade mask here — before they got the dust under control.

“It might look like not a lot has happened,” she said, “but so much has happened.”

Through her Wichita business, Paper Shift ICT, Bright-Samarzia helps people deal with their stuff — mostly when there’s way too much of it.

People call her after a loved one dies and it’s too overwhelming to sort through their belongings alone. Others need help gaining control of their own possessions, often due to mental illness or physical limitations.

Jamie Park, who lives here, deals with chronic pain. The house, just south of downtown Wichita, has been in her family for generations — and for generations, she said, her family has struggled with hoarding.

“It’s kind of crazy growing up in this environment,” she said. “I couldn’t see the floor growing up.”

Park and her family are among thousands of Kansans who deal with hoarding. It’s a problem that’s frequently depicted in the media, but mental health experts say it’s often misunderstood. And they worry hoarding is on the rise in Kansas due to the state’s demographic makeup and a scarcity of support for those who struggle with it.

A generational problem

Park, now in her 20s and a caregiver for her aging parents, is trying to break her family’s history of hoarding. Bright-Samarzia recently helped her clear out the laundry room so she could reach the washing machine. She’d been going to laundromats for years.

“Oftentimes, hoarding is generational,” said Bright-Samarzia, a former therapist. “People pass it down to their kids and their kids and their kids. But somewhere down the line, someone says, ‘Enough.’”

Jamie Park hired Bright-Samarzia to help clear out decades of clutter from her family’s house.
Rose Conlon
Kansas News Service
Jamie Park hired Bright-Samarzia to help clear out decades of clutter from her family’s house.

Down in the basement — where Park will soon move with her kids — the duo start sifting through a half century’s worth of memories, relics and junk: Old pay stubs. Abandoned baby toys. Tangles of unidentified wires.

Park steers clear of the more sentimental stuff.

“People think, ‘I have a lot of photos; I’m going to start with that,’” Bright-Samarzia said. “But you’re going to get stuck on memory lane. The feelings are going to come up regardless, but go through photo albums and mementos last.”

A budding business

More than a decade ago, Bright-Samarzia got a call from a man who would become her first client. He asked whether she could help him sort through about 20 bankers boxes full of unopened mail. It had been building up for years.

After six months of chipping away after work and on weekends, they got it under control.

“Then I put him on quarterly maintenance,” she said.

Earlier this year, Bright-Samarzia decided to quit her job at a mental health professional education company to focus on her decluttering business full time.

The work can be intense, both physically and emotionally. She said a lot of people are reluctant to ask for help because they’re in denial about how bad the situation has become — or ashamed they can’t handle it on their own.

Even if they acknowledge they need to pare down their belongings, the process can stir up complicated feelings.

“For some people, getting rid of things is like throwing away a part of themselves,” she said. “It’s the support of the emotional side that is an enormous component to this.”

Bright-Samarzia helps Park sift through decades of belongings in her family’s basement, where Park will soon move with her kids.
Rose Conlon
Kansas News Service
Bright-Samarzia helps Park sift through decades of belongings in her family’s basement, where Park will soon move with her kids.

What is hoarding?

At its core, hoarding is a difficulty parting with things. It often also involves compulsive collecting.

It’s not always extreme, but it can be. When it begins to significantly interfere with a person’s ability to live their life or use their home, mental health professionals might diagnose them with a hoarding disorder.

People of all ages and backgrounds struggle with hoarding, but Wichita therapist Nancy Trout said issues with clutter often begin to appear in childhood and worsen with age as mobility issues make it harder for people to do the physical work of clearing it out. Grief and trauma can trigger or exacerbate the issue.

“The stuff becomes kind of a protective nest,” said Trout, who runs a monthly support group for people who struggle with hoarding.

She said hoarding often exists alongside other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and the issues can feed on themselves.

“Anxiety and depression may have been part of why the problem started,” she said, “but the fact that the hoard is still there makes people more anxious and depressed.”

She thinks most portrayals of hoarding in popular media — including the reality TV show Hoarders, where teams go in and gut the homes of people with extreme hoarding problems — don’t focus enough on the complex mental health issues at work. The hoarding often returns, she said, if those aren’t addressed.

“If someone is still acquiring, it doesn’t matter how much stuff they get rid of,” she said. “They will refill the space.”

Aging population, lacking support

But it can be hard for hoarders to get the mental health support they need — especially in Kansas, which ranks among the worst states in the country on access to mental health care.

Experts worry the lack of access, coupled with a fast-aging population, could fuel a rise in hoarding in the coming decades.

Most estimates peg the prevalence of hoarding at around 2.5% of the general population, says Randy Frost, a professor emeritus of psychology at Smith College and longtime expert on the disorder. But among older adults, the prevalence is likely much higher.

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

The number of Kansans 65 and older grew 30% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New projections by Wichita State University predict that age cohort will grow the fastest over the next 50 years — more than twice as fast as younger cohorts.

Research has also identified a link between hoarding and loneliness — which experts say can exacerbate older adults’ already elevated rates of social isolation. Frost says the disorder can drive a wedge between a hoarder and their family.

“As the person with hoarding gets older, their adult children have a great deal of difficulty trying to convince them to improve the state of their home,” he said.

At some point, family members might get so frustrated that they refuse to visit the hoarder’s home — or arguments might get so bitter that the hoarder stops allowing them to visit.

“Once that happens, the clutter tends to get worse,” Frost said.

Untreated hoarding among older adults can put more pressure on social services and create problems in the broader community. Out-of-control clutter makes it difficult — and dangerous — for first responders to reach people in distress. It can also create fire hazards.

“It’s the really severe hoarding situations that cause the most health and safety problems,” said Trout, the Wichita therapist. “They can also cause problems for the neighbors.”

She and other experts want to see Kansas invest more in addressing the unique problems older adults face in managing their homes, whether or not they have a clinically diagnosable disorder. 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.

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Rose Conlon