Collection, Clutter, Or Hoarding: How to Tell the Difference

Most conditions exist on a spectrum. Someone can be stressed by the rigours of work and personal life. But that’s wholly different than having an anxiety disorder, despite the two conditions sharing similar underlying mechanisms.

Likewise, collecting, cluttering and hoarding are plotted points on a broad spectrum. They share some underlying impulses and characteristics, but we need to distinguish these terms. And, while some people might use “hoarding” colloquially (“Your kitchen drawer is filled with ketchup packets – what a hoarder”), this glib approach ultimately does a disservice to a very real issue some people face.

Let’s see if we can clear the air a bit. In this article, we attempt to define the differences between collecting, cluttering and hoarding. Collections can be mistaken for cluttering and/or hoarding, and vice versa. This guide will help identify the main differences between the three, and suggest ways our organizing services in Toronto can help.

What Is Hoarding? Exploring an Often Misused, Misassigned Term

Let’s begin with hoarding. Of the three terms, this indicates the most severe condition. It is also the most misunderstood of the three terms.

We need to be careful with the term hoarding. As mentioned, some people use it slangily to refer to a generalized state of mess. However, the term is clearly delineated in the DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) laid out by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Per the APA, hoarding disorder is defined by:

“Persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions due to a perceived need to save the items. Attempts to part with possessions create considerable distress and lead to decisions to save them. The resulting clutter disrupts the ability to use living spaces.”

There are a few insights here worth expanding. First, hoarding is an impulsive behaviour – rather than stemming from, say, carelessness. People with hoarding disorders deliberately hold onto possessions regardless of their actual value. Next, hoarding disorders are, in part, defined by the complications they cause. The effects of hoarding disorders may include physical impediments in the domestic space, health issues caused by mould, blocked exits, compromised fire safety, and more.

Notably, the APA and other professionals prefer to say “people with hoarding disorders” rather than “hoarders”; the former term foregrounds the human, while the latter reduces them to their disorder. Just something to think about the next time we hear the word used in everyday speech. 

The ICD® Clutter–Hoarding Scale®

As we delve into the differences between hoarding, collecting and clutter, we find a useful navigational tool in The ICD® Clutter–Hoarding Scale®. The ICD® (Institute of Chronic Disorganization) measures hoarding and cluttering on a spectrum between 1 and 5: 1 being the least severe and 5 being the most.

Importantly, this scale doesn’t address the mental mechanisms behind hoarding/cluttering. Instead, it describes the spaces, and interventions required by a professional organizing service. Level 1 is considered a standard home where professional organizers may help with light decluttering and implementing organizational systems. Meanwhile, level 5 stipulates that professional organizers should not work alone in the space; they should be accompanied by a team of mental health professionals, loved ones, fire safety agents, social workers, etc.

It’s a helpful guide for signposting the differences between hoarding, cluttering and collecting. You can take a look at the scale at this link.

Happy older adult using a home organizing service to help with clutter

Collecting, Cluttering and Hoarding: What’s the Difference?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we want to reiterate that these terms exist on a spectrum. Someone may experience a severer form of cluttering than another person. Someone might have a more extensive (and disorganized) collection than another person. And hoarding disorders can manifest in disruptive or functioning ways.

The differences, as we see them, boil down to purposefulness, differentiation and effect. Let’s explain:

  • Hoarding is the chronic, purposeful act of holding onto possessions without differentiating the value of objects. Its effect is a decrease in livability and safety.
  • Cluttering may or may not be purposeful; sometimes, we accumulate clutter simply by leaving spaces unattended. People who create clutter can usually differentiate value, and won’t have a tough time letting go of valueless possessions. Still, the effect of cluttering can be disruptive and even unsafe at times.
  • Collecting tends to be more methodical. It’s certainly purposeful, since collectors actively seek their collectibles. And collectors certainly differentiate the value of collectibles. Depending on how organized or disorganized a collection is, its effects run the gamut between benign and disruptive.

Anytime we attempt to summarize a vastly complex topic in just a few paragraphs, we have to oversimplify. Still, we believe that the above classifications paint an accurate portrait of the differences between hoarding, cluttering and collecting.

How to Manage Cluttering, Disorganized Collecting, and Hoarding

Cluttering and disorganized collecting can each be addressed with NEATSPACES’ organizing services in Toronto. As for hoarding at the higher end of the spectrum, the solution will require support from mental health professionals, specially trained hoarding experts, safety experts and more; if you suspect that you fall on the high end of the spectrum, we encourage you to reach out for qualified assistance.

That said, we have ample experience helping people declutter their homes and implement easy-to-follow organizational systems. Likewise, we’ve aided countless people in organizing their collections – whether they’re avid toy collectors, military memorabilia collectors, etc. Depending on the case, we may work with you to sort your belongings, help you sell certain items, offer places to donate your items, discard certain unwanted belongings, and then develop systems to keep your home decluttered well into the future.

At NEATSPACES, we also deal with hoarded estates as part of our professional estate cleanout service. In these cases, the hoarder is no longer present, and the family has trouble coping with the degree of clutter left behind. These scenarios can be incredibly emotional for loved ones. Therefore, we strive for compassion, discretion and empathy as we help revert the home to its original state. Likewise, we also help with downsizing a hoarded home. In these cases, a Power of Attorney (POA) might be in place, the hoarder has moved out, and it’s the POA’s legal domain to deal with the hoarded contents. The POA can contact NEATSPACES to tackle the sizeable task.

Hopefully, this article clarifies the complex, sometimes loaded terms accompanying home disorganization. If you fall on the cluttering/collecting end of the spectrum, reach out to us here at NEATSPACES to find out how we can help. And if you or a loved one demonstrates hoarding at the high end of the spectrum, contact specialized mental health professionals, etc. to begin addressing the issue.

For downsizing, moving and organizing services in the Greater Toronto Area contact us today!