If you want to know how to help a hoarder, you must first appreciate the fact that hoarding is a mental disorder. Hoarders are not lazy, dirty people. A dump truck or bulldozer won’t solve the problem!
If someone you know and love is a hoarder (or has hoarding tendencies) it can be tempting to take over and declutter their belongings in an attempt to ‘fix’ the situation. Or worse, you try to convince them that they should listen to your well-meaning advice and simply stop hoarding. Unfortunately, this approach is almost guaranteed to backfire.
How to Help A Hoarder: What NOT to Say to a Hoarder (And What You Should Say Instead)
Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor a mental health professional. Please do not take the information contained in this post as medical advice. If you or someone you love suffers from hoarding disorder, I urge you to seek treatment today.
Before you can help a hoarder, you must first have a good understanding of what hoarding disorder is (and what it’s not).
How to help a hoarder: what is hoarding?
According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding disorder is defined as:
“Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.”
A person who suffers from hoarding disorder will often fill their home to the brim with clutter (and sometimes trash), limiting access to key spaces needed for sleeping, cooking, and personal hygiene. In extreme hoarding cases, the hoarder’s home will become so overtaken by clutter that the only way to move about their home is by ‘goat trails’ (small pathways amidst the clutter).
Symptoms of hoarding include:
- Amassing large quantities of items which a person lacks space to maintain
- Inability to make decisions required to part with even seemingly insignificant items
- Experiencing anxiety and stress when faced with getting rid of an item
- Distrust of other people in regards to touching hoarder’s belongings
- Persistent disorganization, paralyzing perfectionism, impaired social interactions with others as a result of clutter
Treatments for hoarding disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, working with a professional organizer or hoarding specialist, and ongoing support from family and friends. In cases of extreme hoarding when safety becomes an issue, Adult Protective Services may need to be contacted.
How to help a hoarder: The difference between hoarding and collecting
It’s important to note that hoarders are not collectors. While extensive collecting certainly has the potential to become hoarding, there a few glaring differences between hoarding and collecting. A collector, for example, will tend to display their treasures in a clean, organized fashion such as display cases and shelving systems. In addition, someone who collects will stay within a pre-assigned monetary limit as to avoid overspending. Also, a healthy collection will not interfere with movement throughout the house.
Conversely, hoarders tend to create random, meaningless piles around their homes which frequently impedes mobility. Also, many hoarders don’t exclusively hoard trash. On the contrary, a lot of hoarders posses items of value, however many times these items are misplaced in their hoard and/or treated poorly.
How to help a hoarder: Books on hoarding
Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding by David Tolin, Randy Frost, and Gail Steketee
Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring by Michael A. Tompkins
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost
How to help a hoarder: 5 things you should never say to a hoarder (and what you should say instead)
1.) Don’t say: “Why don’t you just get rid of it?”
Instead, ask “Why is this item important to you?”
Hoarders attach emotions to items. By letting them talk about why certain items are important to them, you can help them realize the emotion is in the memories, not the physical item itself.
2.) Don’t say: “You don’t need this, it’s junk.”
Instead, say “I realize this item holds value for you. However, will it help you to accomplish your goal of a safe/comfortable home?”
Acknowledge the fact that some items in a hoarder’s home may actually be valuable, but that they are not being treasured if they are buried in unnecessary/less-valuable items.
3.) Don’t say: “I’m going to come in and throw everything away.”
Instead, say “I will help you part with things as long as you feel comfortable doing so.” *Always ask for permission to touch a hoarder’s things.
Start small by asking if there is a category of items they are willing to go through and allow you to discard. For example, “I notice a lot of empty paper cups. Will you allow me to go through your home and discard them?”
4.) Don’t say: “Why can’t you just stop collecting stuff/shopping/holding onto things?”
Instead, say “How can I help you?”
Hoarding is almost always about control. Someone who hoards may feel as though their life is spinning out of control. As a result, they seek to control their life by protecting their hoard.
Compulsive hoarding is an irresistible urge to accumulate stuff. A hoarder cannot simply ‘flip a switch’ and stop hoarding.
Treat a hoarder as you would like to be treated. With love, kindness, and understanding. Encourage them to seek therapy for their condition.
5.) Don’t say: “How can you live like this?”
Instead, say “I care about you and worry about your health and safety.”
Don’t make it personal. Shift the focus away from the person and onto the hoard.
Discuss the safety/health aspects of living with a hoard. Focus on creating a safe space for a loved one with hoarding disorder. Attempt to convince them to allow you to help them declutter only the spaces needed for sleeping, cooking, and bathing.
Consequences of hoarding
According to psychiatry.org:
“Hoarding disorder can cause problems in relationships, social and work activities and other important areas of functioning. Potential consequences of serious hoarding include health and safety concerns, such as fire hazards, tripping hazards and health code violations. It can also lead to family strain and conflicts, isolation and loneliness, unwillingness to have anyone else enter the home and an inability to perform daily tasks such as cooking and bathing in the home.”
It’s important to remember that hoarding disorder is never about the stuff. Rather, it is about the (perceived) value hoarders place on objects whether they are useful or not. A person living with a hoarding mentality often is incapable of rational thought when it comes to their belongings. Which is why it can be difficult to impossible to reason with a hoarder.
Arguing with a hoarder is never a viable solution to get them to declutter. Many hoarders are very intelligent/well-educated people and know what to say to win an argument!
The best way to interact with a person how suffers from compulsive hoarding is with kindness, gentleness, and compassion. Remember…hoarding is a recognized mental illness.
It can be an extremely stressful and emotionally draining experience to live with and/or care for a person who suffers from hoarding disorder. Which is why you need to focus on managing your own stress/mental health before you attempt to help them.
If you suffer emotional/physical abuse at the hands of a hoarder, call the authorities and remove yourself from the situation immediately.