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.
Related: Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder
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
The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life by Robin Zasio
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.
Frequently Asked Questions About How To Help A Hoarder
What can you do for the hoarder?
What looks like trash to most people is important for hoarders. So the first step is acknowledging the problem. When we overlook mental health conditions, they spiral into something bigger and get uncontrollable.
You should politely talk to the person with hoarding issues and convince them to get mental health treatment. If that’s not feasible or the other person doesn’t understand the problem of their hoarding tendencies, try to help them declutter.
What should I do if the hoarder is not following through?
People with hoarding disorders are difficult to talk to because, to other people, they seem messy and unorganized. But since they don’t willingly ruin their quality of life, you should be persuasive and patient. Behavioral therapy and professional treatment may be a solution when a hoarder doesn’t follow through. Be consistent and get them to therapy sessions before things get harder.
What if I have a hoarding disorder?
If you suffer from a hoarding issue and know why you feel the need for excessive accumulation, that’s a great starting point.
Your first step should be to get mental health treatment because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, compulsive hoarding disorder in adults cannot be treated without the help of mental health professionals.
If this mental health disorder is timely diagnosed, you’ll need less therapy sessions, so don’t delay. You should also share this realization with a confidante so that they understand your signs of hoarding and help you when needed.
Related article: How Do You Know If You’re A Hoarder? 20 Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder
What causes hoarding disorder?
Mental disorders usually stem from a multitude of reasons; hoarding behaviors are no different.
This psychological disorder is associated with stressful life events like losing a loved one, eviction, etc. These traumatic situations trigger our defense mechanisms.
A hoarder often associates these accumulated items with a safe space and doesn’t realize the issue until it gets compulsive. Besides these reasons, hoarding disorder symptoms can also show if a person’s family has such a history.
What are the symptoms of hoarding disorder?
Uncertainty about some things, inability to throw away useless stuff and possessive behavior are some symptoms of hoarding disorder.
Most hoarders collect everyday life items (toilet rolls, for example) more than they should, thinking they can run out of them and not find or buy them again.
These simple signs can morph into more serious symptoms like collecting even used cardboard boxes, wrappers, etc. over time and impact a person’s behavior in other life matters.
Is there free help for hoarders?
Luckily, there’s some free-of-service help for hoarders available online and offline.
The National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals offers a directory for hoarders where they can find organizers to ease things for them.
Since these organizers empathize with hoarders and understand the challenges of this condition, their help in the decluttering and cleaning process is very valuable.
Moreover, the International OCD Foundation provides resources for local clinics and support groups focused on hoarding.
MORE DECLUTTER TIPS
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- Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder
- Why the KonMari Method Does Not Work
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Carol Puszykowski says
I have A Grandaughter living with me, she has a son that is 8 Years old! I have discovered that she has become a HORDER. She has a million and one thing in my house. I do not know what to do!! I just recently lost lost my son and just now discovered her messes.. Basement ,Room, Garage. Please HELP!!!!
Dr. John Heffernan says
MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE GENDER DIFFERENCES VIS A VIS CLUTTER.. MANY MEN DO NOT FEEL THE CONCEPT AT ALL. THEREFORE, IMHO, IT IS SEXIST FOR WIVES TO URGE THEM INTO PARTICIPATING.
THAT SAID, I AM A HUGE FAN OF A CLUTTER-FREE ENVIRONMENT. MY WARDROBE CONSISTS OF 62 ITEMS IN ABOUT 12 CAREGORIES. MANY CATEGORIES HAVE 1-2 ITEMS EACH. LIKE HATS, BELT, TIE, DRESS SHIRT, SPORTS JACKET, WINTER COAT, GLOVES SCARF, SHOES, SWEATER, HAVE I GONE TOO FAR? IS IT POSSIBLE TO OVER-DECLUTTER?
Tomasa Steans says
Thank you for sharing this with me.i would love to be able to help my elderly neighbor .I have been trying to help her .she has a son he doesn’t want nothing to do with her .
Her pastor and his wife have been in her house and the ambulance also the police officer.and nothing has been done to help her clean up her house.please any advice for me will be greatful received.
Mrs Tomasa Steans
I am a low level hoarder who gets help from watching shows like Hoarders and Hoarders, Buried Alive.
I feel that they help me to understand my disorder and they help to keep me from buying more stuff
and helps me to part with more and more of my stuff. Thought this might help some people get help for their problem and make it easier to start their journey with less stress and help their loved ones understand them better.
Once you/they get going it may help in some small way. Good luck to you all one small step at a time.
Jennifer Logullo says
I am so glad you have addressed this issue! There are deep emotions behind senior hoarding and it’s so important to be extremely careful in how you approach someone you love about a hoarding problem. I found some great insight in this article: https://www.rightathome.net/sarasota-county/blog/senior-hording-issues
why should other people have to tiptoe around hoarders and not get a shovel, backhoe and dumpster? I see on the hoarding shows how they get catered to and allowed to throw fits about toxic junk? I read the statements about what not to say but there was no statement about WHY NOT? Why is saying those statements wrong when they don’t really want to change anyway?
First of all find out what services might help for free and give realistic demands.
Try to help the individuals themselves in a free non threatening way.
Don’t be impatient with time and carefully teach them organization skillls.
Look for private safe helpers who can help the diseased feel secure.
If u are really concerned also try to monitor decluttering efforts free of charge and offer to help
Just be very carefull.
Uncluttered Simplicity says
Wow. Your situation must be frustrating. Hopefully, this article will be helpful in dealing with this situation.
My business partner is a hoarder. I am an extremely organized person. More than half of our warehouse is junk and trash. We have machines that have been broken for years. The warehouse is full of unusable junk. Parts that have not been used for over 20 years. way too many packaging items that would take 20 years to use. Items are misplaced and we have to buy them again. He stores his boat there which has not been used in over a year. His motorcycle that has not been used for over 7 years. His old furniture. His desks are 2 feet high with paper. He has items on his desk from the 19 hundreds. Employees make fun of him. Vendors and customers come out shaking their heads. A vendor was in his office when a mouse sat on his desk.
Uncluttered Simplicity says
Thanks for your comment. If you or someone you love suffers from hoarding disorder, I urge you to seek treatment. Please check out this link: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/hoarding-disorder
A C Rhoney says
I have a kin person who is a hoarder. She is very sweet and generous which she uses to control others to not notice the “elephant” in the living room (all over the house!). My brother is bedridden and is being cared for by the hoarder. He asks for the house to be cleaned up, but this does not matter or she cannot see the distress it causes to the person affected. When do authorities take over? Or do they?