Back To Top

[FEATURE] Lonely South Koreans become hoarders, die unattended

Kim Sae-byul has arguably one of the most unusual jobs in South Korea. His company, named “Bio Hazzard,” offers cleaning services after murders, suicides and unattended deaths in private homes. He is also often contacted by South Korean hoarders, who have inability to discard large quantities of objects -- including food garbage and animal feces -- that literally overwhelm the living areas of their properties.

The cleanup specialist in his 40s cleans the homes of the loneliest, including hoarders who get discovered weeks or years after their unattended deaths along with piles of collected items they’d been living with.

Once, he was asked to clean the house of a man in his 70s, who died alone and was found many weeks later. The man, who had been living by himself for 40 years, was separated from his children and wife after he was jailed for theft. 
Cleanup specialist Kim Sae-byul deals with many clients who have difficulty throwing out garbage that literally covers the living areas of their homes. (Kim Sae-byul)
Cleanup specialist Kim Sae-byul deals with many clients who have difficulty throwing out garbage that literally covers the living areas of their homes. (Kim Sae-byul)

His home was filled with all kinds of brand new goods, including frying pans and piles of new underwear, unused and unwrapped. The house was so packed that Kim couldn’t see the floor or the walls.

“Many of them were purchased 20 or 30 years ago,” Kim said. “I heard from his grown up children that he went to jail after stealing for his kids. He never contacted his family.”

Hoarding disorder is a mental condition that is slowly receiving public attention in South Korea.

A number of extreme cases have been featured in reality TV shows, including a woman in her 90s who lived alone with more than 100 tons of garbage, broken furniture in a mouse-infested house in Gayang-dong, Gyeonggi Province.

While the mental condition has a number of different causes, overseas studies and local experts suggest that one of the biggest reasons is loneliness and social isolation.

“Social isolation is the biggest cause of almost all mental diseases,” said Kim Suk-joo, a psychiatrist at the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul.

“When suffering from unfulfilling relationships with close friends and family, some people start to form relationships with objects and animals. You give meanings to them, and every single object becomes simply unreplaceable.”

Recent statistics have shown that more Koreans are living alone, spending less time with their families while feeling disconnected to the world. From 2010-2015, the proportion of single-person households increased significantly from 15.8 percent to 27.1 percent.

According to the OECD data last year, 28 percent of Koreans said they have no meaningful social support network at all -- not a single person they can speak to or rely on -- in times of crisis. This rate was the highest among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Suicide has become the fourth most common cause of death here, with up to 40 people taking their own lives every day.

Following a recent government study that revealed 90 percent of Korean suicide victims had diagnosable psychiatric illnesses -- while only 15 percent of them sought medical help due to fear of stigma and lack of information -- the Health Ministry on Tuesday announced a set of measures to improve public mental health. The measures include easier access to antidepressants and more prevention programs for alcohol and Internet addiction.

“Many Koreans wouldn’t even think of hoarding as a medical condition,” said psychiatrist Kim. “It’s especially easy for hoarders who live alone to keep their condition a secret, as no one is going to find out as long as they don’t invite anyone to their house. And this can make them even more isolated.”

In 2014, Seo Yoo-na, a 21-year-old compulsive hoarder, was featured in an EBS reality TV show. Seo, who was suffering from a severe eating disorder, was abandoned by her parents at age 3 after they divorced, and was raised by her grandparents. Growing up, she never had any close friends. In the show, she would constantly purchase and hoard food that she had no plans of eating.

“I just wanted to be loved, and that’s why I started losing weight (to be more desirable),” she told her therapist in the show, sobbing. “But even after losing weight, I had no one by my side.”

Cleanup specialist Kim, who previously worked as a mortician at a funeral house, witnessed about 1,500 unattended deaths after establishing his cleaning business in 2009. He said of the 1,500 cases, about 80 percent were suicides, and 30 percent of the deceased were hoarders or lived in an extremely unsanitary environment. And of the suicide victims, about 70 percent were young Koreans in their 20s and 30s, Kim said.

All of Kim’s clients that The Korea Herald approached declined to be interviewed.

Kim’s experiences are reflected in the latest statistics released by the Health Ministry, which showed that the biggest proportion of all Koreans who sought medical help for obsessive compulsive disorder from 2010-2014 were those in their 20s and 30s. 
Another hoarder's house filled with garbage. (Kim Sae-byul)
Another hoarder's house filled with garbage. (Kim Sae-byul)

One of the cases Kim encountered was a man in his 30s, who worked as a delivery man at a parcel service company on contract. He had been living alone, had never been married and had been suffering from severe work-related stress. He committed suicide at home a few months after incurring a serious self-inflicted injury when he was drunk that left him disabled and unable to work. His body was found weeks later by his landlord. When Kim stepped in, the house was completely filled with garbage and countless empty soju bottles.

“My experiences relate to OECD data (about Koreans’ lack of social support networks),” Kim said. “While cleaning the house, I met the man’s brother, whom he had not spoken to for years prior to his suicide. He said his late brother had a rather ‘peculiar’ personality and it was impossible to make conversation with him. It was as if he knew all along this was going to happen. I’ve seen a lot of cases where family members were no better than strangers to the suicide victims.”

Kim has also witnessed more than 150 extreme hoarding and animal hoarding cases. “I think there are two different types or hoarders,” he said. “One keeps their place sanitary, in spite of the piles of stuff they collected. The other kind lives with rotting food garbage and dirty sanitary pads.”

Notably, Kim said 90 percent of the “unsanitary” hoarders he encountered were women. One of them was a young, alcoholic divorcee in her 20s who was living alone with her 2-year-old son. She would leave her child alone in the house, with piles of garbage and a smartphone for him to play with. Her child accidentally called the police while crying alone at home. The court eventually ordered that the child live with his father instead. Kim, who was asked by the police to clean the house, ended up disposing of 50 tons worth of garbage from the property.

“It was a gorgeous apartment,” Kim said. “Except all of the TV screens were broken and there were broken pieces of soju glasses everywhere. I thought it was a miracle that the child didn’t get sick or injured after living in that kind of environment for a long time.”

Another client, a woman in her 30s, used one of her rooms as a garbage can. The entire room -- from the floor to the ceiling -- was packed with all kinds of garbage, including rotting food.

“She had a professional job and had a degree from a prestigious university,” he said. “The rest of the house was very clean and tidy. No one would’ve guessed that secret of hers.”

Another woman in her 20s, who lived alone with a cat in Seoul and had a decent-paying job, was forced to get Kim’s help by her landlord who received complaints from her neighbors who couldn’t bear the odor. When he stepped in, Kim could barely open his eyes because he felt a burning sensation from the strong smell of cat urine. He ended up using 10 of the largest-available garbage bags to dispose just cat feces alone.

“She said she stopped throwing garbage out after breaking up with her boyfriend. Her parents, who lived in the country, rarely visited her.”

Psychiatrist Kim said inability to throw out animal feces and food garbage is more likely a symptom of severe depression or even schizophrenia, rather than hoarding. “Depression kills motivation and interest,” Kim said. “Patients with depression suspend taking care of day-to-day chores, such as cleaning.”

An Hui-jean, a professional counselor and psychologist, suggested that South Korea’s high suicide rate today, as well as growing number of reported child abuse cases and mental illness, was a result of accumulated transgenerational trauma stemming from the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Most of the time, someone’s trauma and mental illness are linked to his or her dysfunctional relationship with their family, especially their parents,” she said.

“And it’s very likely that their parents also had dysfunctional relationship with their parents. After the Korean War, many Koreans shared that collective trauma, but almost no one received any professional and psychiatric treatment. Instead, there was a collective obsession over economic development. Koreans didn’t get to acknowledge that they have been wounded and seek help.”

A 2014 study by University of Zurich found that traumatic events can change a person, and often, years later, affect their children.

“I think this vicious circle is still carrying on from one generation to the other in Korea,” An said. “And this is making more young people vulnerable to mental conditions, as family no longer serves as a meaningful support network for many Koreans. When your needs were not met as a child, it’s very difficult for you to be considerate of needs of others, including your own children.”

One of the most heartbreaking cases Kim encountered was a divorced father in his 50s, who lived alone while battling stage-4 liver cancer. He was discovered days after his unattended death.

While cleaning his house, Kim found a very large number of books on Korean herbs believed to be effective in treating cancer. He had kept his illness a secret from his ex-wife and their two young daughters, while feeling desperate to survive as he felt obligated to at least finance their university education.

“It seemed like he would work every weekday in spite of his fatal illness, and would visit mountains on weekends in hopes to find the rare herbs that may cure his disease,” Kim said.

“And until his unattended death, his children had no idea.”

 By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

MOST POPULAR