There seem to be two types of people in the world; people who love having lots of “stuff” and those who find clutter stressful. However, for some, keeping stuff becomes much more than accumulating lots of beautiful things. They become reluctant to let anything go, often holding onto things that make no sense to us, such as empty shampoo bottles. This is referred to as hoarding.
Hoarders rarely throw things away; instead, they often hold onto everything until their home is bursting at the seams. Perhaps you know someone who fits this description.
This obsessive behavior is a genuine mental disorder and hoarders need help if they are to break away from the compulsion to never let things go. But how do you help a hoarder, particularly one that doesn’t want help? What can you do and what might make things worse?
Don’t confuse hoarding with collecting. Lots of people like to collect things, whether it’s stamps, recipes, antiques, or automobiles. A collector has a narrow area of interest (or a few), an objective in mind, and usually keep their collection(s) in a well-ordered manner. None of this applies to a hoarder.
In an article published by The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Carol A. Matthews, a professor of Psychiatry at Florida University, wrote: “HD is defined as a pattern of persistent difficulties with discarding personal possessions, even those with no clear value, because of strong desires to save along with distress or indecision about what to discard. Difficulty discarding is often, but not always, accompanied by excessive acquiring of unneeded objects, and, in the absence of intervention, leads over time to the accumulation of so many items that the space or room cannot be used for its usual purposes, and thus to substantial functional impairment.”
Hoarding has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, dementia, schizophrenia, and people who have suffered serious trauma, but is now recognized as a clinical disorder in its own right.
Hoarding not only adversely affects the hoarder’s living environment, making it dangerous and unsanitary, but also often damages relationships and can lead to chronic isolation.
There are dangers when trying to intervene in any psychological disorder, but there are things you can do that should have a positive effect if done cautiously and with love – you must always put the hoarder first and remember that it is their health that matters.
Hoarding, like so many other mental illnesses, often makes little sense to us and can be frustrating, so you need to be aware that the person you’re trying to help doesn’t think the way you do. Here are some ways to help:
- Gain knowledge – Before you do anything, educate yourself about the condition and remember that it is an illness. Charging in like an elephant will only make the situation worse. A hoarding disorder may be the symptom of other issues so you should tread lightly. Hoarding may seem irrational to you but you must empathize in order to help.
- Ask questions & listen to what they have to say – Begin carefully and listen to what they have to say. Hoarders are likely to be wary of others so be gentle and non-judgemental. Hoarding has become a way of life for them and they may think you are trying to prevent them from being who they are. Ask non-confrontational questions – are you comfortable in your home, how do you feel when you have visitors – and listen to their answers. This could help them to analyze their own motives and behavior – a sort of self-therapy.
- Don’t expect miracles and be pleased with small changes – People don’t wake up one day with a house full of stuff, hoarding is a progressive disorder and tends to increase over time. You can’t come in and blitz their house to get it clean. Instead, choose a small area of the home or a small collection of things they aren’t so attached to and work with them to declutter a small space. Doing too much at once may cause them to panic. You need to move slowly to show them that they don’t need what they have and that their life is easier without it. (For example, decluttering in a bathroom or around the kitchen sink and/or hob.)
- Offer help – If they will let you offer to help them clean and tidy their home. Don’t impose, just give them a helping hand. If they attend a local support group, go with them and be their prop if they need one. Small things can give great results.
- Suggest they look for professional help – Your efforts may make a difference, but it may be that your friend or family member needs professional psychological help. If they agree that they could use someone to talk things through with, offer to help them find the right setting and provider. There are many sorts of treatments available for people with hoarding disorder. If one doesn’t work, encourage them to try another.
Many hoarders are on the defensive and may be upset by what they might see as you interfering with their lifestyle or being critical of them. They may find it embarrassing but still be incredibly emotionally attached to their things. Their possessions are important to them (even outdated newspapers and old toilet paper rolls) and you could be looked on as an enemy attempting to deprive them of things they love. You have to be sensitive or you may find you have only made the situation worse.
- Don’t judge – Always support them and never judge the hoarder’s behavior openly. Always try to understand and be empathetic and help their steps to improvement, however small they may be.
- Don’t add to the problem – Going shopping with them or regularly giving them gifts can only make the situation worse. Never offer to store things for them, it is just giving them the excuse to get even more things. Though these things may seem mean in the short term you need to try to avoid supporting their hoarding habit.
- Don’t clean up – If you regularly clean up for them you are easing the problems caused by the hoarding and preventing them from facing the results of their actions. Though it may seem you are helping, you are not.
- Don’t do anything unasked – Avoid touching their belongings without being given express permission. What you see as trying to help may be seen by them as unwarranted interference and destroy your relationship. Throwing things away without the knowledge of the hoarder will almost certainly undo any good work that has been achieved.
- Accept it is a long road – Don’t get frustrated when progress is not as fast as you’d hoped it would be. Improvement is rarely linear and you must accept setbacks. The person you are seeking to help must not feel you are disappointed in them or think they’re crazy. Also, realize that if they are elderly they may have more trouble making meaningful change than someone younger.
Hoarding is a problem for between 5 and 14 million people in the United States alone. It is a complicated disorder and the causes are still not completely understood. We do know that treatment takes a long time to improve the condition. Any help you can offer a hoarder is worthwhile.
Hoarding often goes unrecognized until the hoarder passes away or needs to move – and the responsibility of removing all that clutter often falls on their loved ones. If you need to sell their home, this process can seem particularly daunting as you may not know what the condition of the home is like under all that mess. That’s where we can help.
Pavel Buys Houses often buy homes from hoarders or relatives of hoarders in Massachusetts. We take all the hard work of disposing of those possessions off their shoulders and offer the seller a simple answer to their problem.
If you are faced with selling a property owned by a hoarder please reach out to us and we will be more than happy to help. Find out more here.