How To Help A Hoarder - Important Do's And Don'ts
Updated June 22, 2020
Reviewer Elizabeth Strong
Living with a loved one who is a hoarder can be extremely stressful. It probably affects your ability to be as close to that person as you would like. Maybe you avoid visiting your friend or family member in their home. Perhaps you have difficulty spending time together because the hoarding issue takes up space, like an elephant in a very cluttered room.
You probably want to help your loved one. Maybe you've tried a few things, but nothing seems to help. This article aims to help you understand hoarding, its symptoms, causes, and things to do and maybe just as importantly, things not to do to help your loved one on the road to recovery.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding affects anywhere from 2 to 6 percent of the population. The cause of hoarding disorder is currently unknown, but that does not mean that there are not any effective treatments available that can help provide relief. CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is one of these treatments that are widely available. CBT has worked for countless patients by changing their thoughts towards their possessions. Using CBT, they will gradually become less distressed about holding onto possessions and will have a decreased desire to keep future ones. By reducing the effect that these items have on the person, CBT and other treatments can help people recover from hoarding disorder.
What Exactly is Hoarding Disorder?
According to the Mayo Clinic, "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 distresses at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs." This serious mental health disorder can lead to dangerous living conditions, malnutrition, and poor personal hygiene. While the cause of hoarding is unknown, experts agree it is important for a hoarder to seek professional help as soon as possible after symptoms are identified.
Symptoms of hoarding range from mild to severe. In general, hoarders accumulate and save large volumes of possessions, regardless of their value. Hoarders experience extreme attachment to inanimate objects and severe anxiety when making decisions. These items pile up to the point that they create difficulty using the space for its intended purpose. Occasionally, some of these symptoms can be explained by other disorders such as decreased energy to clean caused by depression or symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, hoarders display a unique combination of symptoms:
- Acquiring and saving items regardless of their value.
- Extreme distress at the idea of getting rid of possessions.
- Accumulating possessions to the point that it makes rooms unusable. For example - Stacks of newspapers on seating and dining areas, piles of clothes on the bed, heaps of possessions causing narrow pathways from room to room.
- Poor organization, losing important items or documents in the clutter.
- Conflict with those who try to remove items from home.
As hoarding symptoms increase, the person may experience isolation from others and health issues related to compromised living conditions.
How do I know if my loved one have hoarding disorder?
If your loved one experiences a combination of the symptoms listed above, it is important to encourage the person to seek professional help. The earlier the person seeks help, the more successful the treatment tends to be. Perhaps you see the clutter in your loved one's home as hoarding, but the person only thinks it is messy. If this is the case, it can be useful to use this Clutter Image Rating guide from the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Hoarding Center. If rooms closely match image 4 or above, it is very likely your loved one is a hoarder.
Hoarding is different from collecting. Both activities involve acquiring items to which a person gives a special value that may go beyond the item's actual worth. Collectors tend to organize and display items carefully. Collectors are usually proud of their items and like to talk about them or show them off. Hoarders, on the other hand, are often embarrassed about the status of their living situation. They also may avoid inviting people into their homes.
Though they are different, collecting can become hoarding. When a collection begins to move beyond its designated containers and impede on a person's living space, that collector may be becoming a hoarder. If you start seeing these traits developing in a friend or loved one, it may be time for that person to seek professional advice and treatment.
You may wonder why hoarders keep so many possessions when it seems so obvious that the behavior is unhealthy. Very little is known in the psychology community about what causes a person to begin to hoard. Experts say hoarding tendencies often begin as young as puberty, but most people who seek professional treatment for the disorder do not do so until they are 50 or older.
Some believe hoarding tendencies are related to inherited brain patterns and are related to anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. For some, hoarding begins following a significant traumatic experience.
People who hoard say they acquire and keep items for a variety of reasons:
- They believe an item will be useful or valuable in the future.
- They feel it has sentimental value, is unique, or irreplaceable.
- They feel it is too good of a bargain to pass up or throw away.
- They think items will help them remember an important person or event they might otherwise forget.
How to help a hoarder - "Don'ts"
Hoarders experience extreme distress at the idea of getting rid of their possessions. It may be tempting to simply clean up for the hoarder. However, like many psychological disorders, forcing someone to change is often not effective and may even backfire and make the problem worse.
- Don't remove things from the hoarder's home without consent. It may seem like if they could just start with a clean slate, the person would be much better off, but getting rid of clutter does not address the extreme emotional distress caused by the idea of losing valuable or important items. Throwing things away or getting rid of them without permission is not successful in the long-term. The hoarder is likely to revert right back to old behaviors. On top of that, the hoarder may become very upset with you. This can diminish the chances of them seeking professional help.
- Don't expect the cleaning process or the healing process to happen overnight. It takes a long time for a hoarder to get to the point of having a house that is unsafe, and it can take a long time to change both the environment and the behaviors that caused it.
- Don't enable their behavior. While taking items against a person's will is not helpful, adding to their clutter by buying or giving them things or taking them on shopping trips is just as bad. Avoid adding to the clutter by showing your love in other ways and spending time doing activities not related to consumption.
- Don't clean up after them. Just like removing things without permission, cleaning up after a hoarder could keep them from addressing the deeper issues that are leading to the hoarding in the first place.
- Don't expect perfection. Just like with dieting, spending money, gambling or drinking, a hoarder is likely to experience setbacks even after receiving professional treatment. See these for what they are normal human imperfection and keep showing love and support.
How to help a hoarder - "Do's"
Now you know what not to do if you have a loved one who hoards, but you may be wondering if there is anything you can do to help them. While the disorder that leads to hoarding will likely be something your loved one must face for the rest of their life, the good news is, there are steps you can take to help a hoarder reclaim their space and their lives.
- Do encourage the person to seek professional help. You cannot force a person to get help against their will, but you can encourage someone by helping them find a therapist and resources in their community to help them get the help they need.
- Do take the time to learn about hoarding. While TV shows about hoarding may spread awareness about the disorder, many experts say these shows paint an incorrect picture about hoarding and how to help a person who hoards. Look for credible sources like the Mayo Clinic, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the American Depression and Anxiety Association of America.
- Do help them with their belongings if they ask for help. During or after receiving professional treatment, a hoarder may seek your assistance in dealing with the accumulation of clutter in their home, car, and other spaces. Help when you can or consider seeking professional movers and cleaners if the task becomes too daunting.
- Do listen to your loved one. Try not to judge them for their hoarding any more than you would judge someone for having a physical health ailment like diabetes or asthma. Hoarding is a mental disorder. It is not something a person simply chooses to do. Your support and openness will go much further toward encouraging your loved one to seek professional treatment than your judgment or disappointment.
- Do recognize the positive change. Hoarding doesn't happen overnight, and it won't be solved overnight. Encourage and praise your loved one if you see them attempting to clean or organize a small space or making the decision to talk to a professional. Your love and support will be instrumental in helping a hoarder get on track and stay there.
Online therapy can be a convenient, stress-free, yet effective way to start addressing hoarding behaviors, and at BetterHelp, licensed counselors and therapists who are trained to modify behaviors and use techniques such as CBT are available to help people who struggle with hoarding to overcome their thoughts, feelings, and anxiety, about separating from their belongings.
Adapting to life without hoarding will take time, and will be challenging, but by giving people the skills they need to cope, people can live a life free of hoarding. Additionally, maintenance and regular check-ups may also be required to make sure that the individual does not relapse back into old habits. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"I find that Dr. Morritt goes to great lengths to make our interactions very comfortable in a way that I feel safe sharing myself with her. I am not worried about being judged, and I appreciate the times when she empathizes or relates to parts of my life. Dr. Morritt is thoughtful in her responses in a way that allows me to let go, grow, and see other points of view."
"I began working with Courtney during a time when I was very anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, and needing someone to help me work through the chaos in my mind. Courtney was so empathetic, understanding, and non-judgmental, and encouraged me to let go of things that were no longer serving me. Courtney always checked in to see how I was doing if I hadn't been messaging her and that meant a lot to me. I felt respected, heard, and validated. I would recommend her to anyone."
As many as one in 50 Americans suffer from hoarding disorder, but treatment is available to 100 percent of those who have it. When one considers their friends and loved ones, the effects of hoarding are much more widespread. There is no perfect solution to helping a loved one who hoards, but patience, love, and understanding are key and encouraging your loved one to seek professional help is probably the most effective step you can take, and by following the advice in this article, you can make it that much easier.