A&E’s Hoarders: Destigmatizing or Sensationalizing Compulsive Collecting?

While America tunes in to A&E for an hour on Monday evening, an estimated 2 million Americans cannot escape hoarding by simply turning off their televisions. Each week Hoarders, now in its second season, tells the story of two individuals engaged in chronic compulsive collecting. In classic reality show style, the families neatly find closure and hope for the future in 60 minutes (well, 45 if commercials don’t count) with the assistance of a clinical psychologist and a professional organizer. The show has been wildly successful, catapulting A&E into position as cable’s number 3 entertainment network, even allowing A&E to post its best year ever in 2009, according to Nielsen ratings. But the question becomes: what effect does Hoarders have on the nation’s perception of this professionally recognized compulsive disorder. Hoarders has profiled over 40 individuals thus far in its first two seasons. What role do these 40 people and their families play for the country’s estimated 2 million hoarders? What image do these people portray for the public tuning in for weeknight entertainment? The answers to these questions are not entirely clear.

Hoarding: An Aging Issue

According to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, hoarding is the excessive collection and retention of things or animals until they interfere with day-to-day functions such as home, health, family, work and social life. Severe hoarding causes safety and health hazards. Mental health professionals agree that hoarding is closely linked to certain mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, trauma, and depression. As America ages, the prevalence and consequences of hoarding will increase. Demographics of people who hoard are hard to quantify due to the hidden nature of the problem, however experts agree that hoarding tendencies increase with age and older adult hoarders face unique challenges due to the disorder’s health and safety implications. Older adult hoarders with limited mobility may face increased difficulties moving around their home, and those with cognitive limitations may not have the judgment or critical thinking skills required to recognize fire hazards. The combination of older age and hoarding can be deadly. Nationwide, older adults and their families confront the reality of hoarding in their daily lives. Professionals around the country respond to the growing imperative by creating hoarding task forces to study local hoarding patterns and intervene with identified hoarders. Meanwhile, A&E delivers images of hoarding to 1.4 million televisions for 60 minutes once a week.

Hoarders Fights the Stigma of Compulsive Collecting

Each week, A&E brings the issue of compulsive collecting to the national consciousness, normalizing hoarding behavior without painting it as an acceptable lifestyle decision. Viewers witness the heartache the profiled hoarders feel with the loss of each newspaper, item of clothing, or trinket. They can see the humanity of the hoarders and understand that hoarders are somebody’s mother or father, sister or brother, or child. They recognize the difficult path that led to the hoarder’s current situation and begin to see the uphill battle each family must forge as they work to dig out from under an oppressive pile of garbage and emotional damage. Viewers see how fervently people live the adage, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But A&E’s influence is not contained to the television. The network proudly boasts a robust website for the show, complete with hoarding treatment resources and an online discussion forum about Hoarders and hoarding. Professionals and lay people come together to tell stories of their personal experiences with hoarding, to seek support from others, and to share resources and research with one another.

That’s Entertainment: The Sensationalizing of Compulsive Hoarding

While Hoarders draws attention to a growing problem, it also serves another function: entertainment. The show gives the casual Monday night viewer the opportunity to unwind while watching someone else’s drama unfold on screen. Armchair psychologists can kick back after a long day and indulge in a generous dose of schadenfreude: “My apartment may be messy, but at least I can still sit on my couch.” Hoarders turns pain into amusement, capitalizing on the American audience’s lust for the extreme. This extends to the show’s website, as well. Nestled among the resources and community forum is a photo gallery of hoarders homes where viewers can relive their favorite Hoarders moments. There seems to be reason to believe that A&E, which seemed so well-intentioned and mission-driven, may be similar to all other cable networks in their quest for the bottom line.

Attention Must Be Paid to Hoarding as Prevalence Increases

While the long-term implications of A&E’s Hoarders can be debated, its value in drawing immediate attention to the issue of hoarding is indisputable. The show offers a glimpse into a world unfamiliar and unfathomable to millions nationwide: the world of hoarders and their families. As aging professionals come together in task forces to address compulsive collecting in older adults, A&E’s Hoarders serves as an innovative method for placing hoarding in the national consciousness, particularly as the disorder’s prevalence grows in the years and decades to come. Photo courtesy of: Grap on commons.wikimedia.org

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