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Hoarding disorder is complicated and emotional for everyone involved. A recognized mental disorder, someone who hoards is not just collecting items; the hoarder actually feels unable to get rid of items and experiences psychological distress when faced with the possibility of discarding the things that are being hoarded. This can impact every aspect of life — from health to relationships to employment to quality of life and more.
If you interact with a hoarder’s home, whether you love someone who hoards, you live with someone who hoards, or you’re a landlord of someone who hoards, you must approach the situation delicately. Learn what you can do to improve a hoarder’s situation.
It’s a simple fix, right? Go into the hoarder’s home, throw away all trash, discard broken items, donate unused items, and go over all surfaces with a cleaning rag once done. Right?
Because hoarding is a psychological issue, and not just an organizational issue, a hoarder will have unusually strong feelings about their items. They may also feel intense guilt for getting rid of any item, even pieces of trash. If you go in and disturb the objects in the home, it will trigger an intense psychological reaction in the hoarder.
You also can’t simply use logic to change a hoarder. And you can’t deliver ultimatums (unless you’re a landlord) without severely damaging your relationship. A hoarder needs professional, psychological help before any initial step can be taken in the home. They have to see a need for change and to want it.
This is going to be a complex issue in your life, so you need to educate yourself on hoarding. Spend time on reputable websites, like International OCD Foundation Hoarding Center and Children of Hoarders.
Look for local resources to help you through the process, and consider seeking therapy for yourself. Hoarding is comparable to addiction, and as such, is far-reaching. Anyone in a hoarder’s life will be negatively impacted. A support group or a knowledgeable therapist can do wonders for your own mental health as you go through the process of helping a hoarder.
A hoarder likely does not see anything wrong with their situation. Because of this, your approaches to help may be seen as unnecessary at best and intrusive or offensive at worst. Find a neutral location to have a conversation about the problem, and approach the topic with compassion. Tell the hoarder you are concerned about their health and safety and you want to help. Be prepared for resistance or denial. Gently and firmly suggest therapy, and have a list of therapists and other resources ready.
Resist the impulse to shame or belittle the hoarder in your life. Remember that they likely don’t see this as a problem, and nobody likes being told that the way they are living is wrong. Always return to compassion, and understand you may have to have these conversations more than once.
Praise accomplishments, even baby steps. Check-in on the hoarder throughout the process of healing. Help the hoarder establish goals and create a plan.
If the hoarding is causing a health or safety hazard (for example, stacks of newspapers creating a fire hazard), you’ll need to be more firm and insistent. You may also need to involve local authorities.
Remember that this is not going to change overnight. Hoarding is psychological, and the problem will persist to some degree. The hoarder needs professional help at every stage if the cleanup is going to be successful. If you somehow convince a hoarder to completely clean out their home, but they don’t continue to seek mental health treatment, the hoarding behaviors will return.
In some cases, such as when children are in the home, the home is being destroyed, or health or safety hazards are present, it will be necessary to enforce expectations and consequences. A Board of Health inspector, housing voucher inspector, judge, fire department, or the social services department may need to get involved. These people in authority can make expectations with deadlines, and enforce consequences (removal of children, eviction, etc.) if those expectations are not met.
Family members and loved ones can be a support through this process, helping the hoarder to meet expectations or providing emotional support if they don’t. In all cases, a therapist should also be in the hoarder’s life to provide emotional support. The family member or therapist is not there to enforce the rules but to remind and provide support throughout the process.
Fortunately, when a hoarder wants to change, the right support can drastically improve their living situation and life.