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TU assistant professor, students offer training to hoarders’ loved ones

hoarding art

A Towson professor is offering help to hoarders’ loved ones as part of a study. (File photo)

Family members who can’t sit down to dinner together because the dining room table is buried under boxes. Adult children concerned about elderly parents living with rodent infestations. Friends who can’t visit because the house is so packed with stuff, there’s nowhere to sit.

These are the people who tend to intervene with loved ones who are hoarders. They are often frustrated. Shame, embarrassment and denial often make those folks most in need of help the ones most reluctant to get it.

“Individuals with hoarding or clutter issues often don’t recognize or acknowledge that they’re having any issues, and this can really lead to a lot of family problems,” says Gregg Chasson, a Towson University assistant professor of psychology. “Research shows that there is a lot of family disruption that comes with hoarding—a lot of arguments, a lot of people going their separate ways.”

This strife is most prominently highlighted on popular reality shows like TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive, which features interviews with worried family members who are tired of living with a loved one’s rubble. Hoarding behaviors can also turn dangerous when they lead to fire hazards and unsanitary environments.

That’s why Chasson is testing a free training program designed to give family members tools to guide even the most resistant relatives toward help that can help improve both their quality of life and their relationships. TU students are assisting Chasson in the training program.

The training, funded by Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners HealthCare, offers once-a-week sessions for five weeks in which participants learn communication techniques and how to maximize safety for loved ones who may be endangering themselves and the people around them with their hoarding or clutter. They also get tips on how to set boundaries to avoid enabling unhealthy behaviors.

Although the free training is for the family members and friends of people with hoarding or clutter issues, the program requires that the hoarders/clutterers also visit campus, for which they receive $105. These paid sessions are general assessments in which participants answer questions about their quality of life, relationships and family situation.

“Of course we’re interested in people who are hoarders,” says Chasson, “but you don’t have to be a hoarder to participate—you can have clutter problems—difficulties getting rid of anything or saving too much or getting too much stuff.”

Positive feedback from a pilot study supports Chasson’s belief that the training techniques work.

“People love this,” he says. “They’re not only learning the skills that they need, but also, their quality of life is improving, their coping abilities are improving, their stress levels are going down, and their hope is going up.”

And that’s the goal—to help people live happier, healthier lives. It’s an outcome that Chasson hopes will benefit a far larger population than the relatively small one in the study. The results, he says, will be available for other clinicians and researchers to use and study.

“This way we can help families all around the globe.”

Enrollment is ongoing for the next year. For more information, call Chasson directly at 410-704-3261, email him at gchasson@towson.edu or visit the study’s website.