How Do You Help a Hoarder?
If you've seen the hoarding shows on television, you may be tempted to do a massive clean-out of your loved one's house. After all, you can see how the hoarding is affecting her life. You want her to be able to walk around the house without the danger of tripping over things and having an avalanche of stuff burying her. You want her to be able to find the things she need. You want her to stop wasting their money and her time acquiring things she doesn't need, looking for places to put it, and looking for the item as it gets absorbed among all the stuff in the house. You worry about her health as the dust, mold, and other allergens continue to accumulate.
You want to help, but helping her by cleaning out their stuff will not work. Why? Because she has formed attachments to her stuff. Even if you can get the house sparkling clean, she will miss her stuff, and she will get even more to replace it. In addition, she may not trust you around her belongings.
That doesn't mean that there isn't anything that you can do, however. Instead of focusing on their stuff,
Instead of trying to find solutions that involve working around the hoarder, it is best to enlist his support and help. This requires open and honest communication. Tell him that you are worried about the situation, and offer your support and assistance. Discuss the matter in a calm and rational manner, focusing on the facts. "I'm worried that the fire department will have difficulty getting to you if there is a fire," is much better than "Why don't you throw out your crap?"
Ask the hoarder how you can help him. He may actually have some insight in his condition and may know what kind of support that he needs.
If he is resistant to the conversation, don't worry. Since you have voiced your concerns, he will at least consider whether he has a problem, and may now recognize that he is not the only one that is affected by the hoarding.
Your loved one didn't get into this condition out of spite, nor did she want to upset you. Most likely, she acquired things because she felt that they would add beauty, use, or joy in her life. She bought into the marketing hype, or felt that she could do something to give them new life. She may have been so busy helping others that she forgot to make time to take care of her own belongings. She put away the items, for now, until she had time to make a decision of where to actually place them.
Then, before she knew it, she had a hoard, and people were getting upset. It now is an overwhelming pile of stuff, and she may feel helpless to fix it.
Instead of your criticism, she needs your compassion. She has a situation where she needs your help and support. Offer your help as you would to anyone who is going through a crisis. You don't yell at them; you forgive their moods and quirks because you know that it is more important to look at the big picture.
After many failed attempts and feeling overwhelmed for a long time, the hoarder may not have acquired or may have forgotten the basic skills to prevent hoarding. He may need some help in learning how to make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. He may be worried about the environment and feel that he is saving it by not adding to the landfill. Maybe the stress and effort it takes to make decisions about what to keep, where to store it, what to recycle, when and where to sell an item to maximize profit, and creative ways to reuse the item, and when to throw it away are too much work. He may need to learn to develop some processes and rules on the decision making, and learn habits like putting things away when he is done with them.
You can teach these things by being an example in how you handle your own things. Instead of simply doing things, you can explain what you are doing. Avoid the classroom lectures, but instead just narrate your activities. "Now that this container is empty, I am going to put it in the recycle bin."
- Zen of Hoarding
Zen of Hoarding is a book that provides 108 offerings on where to begin and how to progress along your path in clearing the space between the clutter and your calling.
While you may be able to look at the pile of empty toilet paper rolls, and know that they have no value, your loved one may think differently. "I can make something out of them," he will say. There are some lessons that need to be learned the hard way. It will take patience on your part to help see him to the end. "Okay," you can respond. "Let's do some crafts and make something." You might worry at first that you are only encouraging more hoarding, but after several sessions, he may realize that there is a limit to how much enjoyment he gets in making things out of toilet paper rolls, or he may realize how much time it would take to make all the things that he wants to make. He will have to learn to prioritize the types of crafts he wants to make, and the number of items he needs to store to make those crafts.
Your loved one may want to save the old lamp because "it might be worth something." Remember, he has been treasuring and storing this item for a long time and has an attachment to it. Again, you can help him to that end. Help him check out the worth of the item on eBay, have a garage sale, or take items to the used book store, record store or an antique store. At first, he might be happy that he is receiving $10 for the item and he hasn't been storing it in vain. But hopefully over time, he will realize that it takes a lot of time and effort to clean it, price it, take it to the store, package it, wait in line, or ship it, and that he may be better off taking a loss or quickly donating it.
These are lessons that have to be learned by doing. Most hoarders will have a hard time taking someone else's word for the items that they know are diamonds in the rough.
The hoarding may have begun as a response to a traumatic situation. The acquired items probably felt like they provided support during a stressful time, and it is difficult to let them go.
Sometimes, a tendency to hoarding is exacerbated by an underlying condition such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. A depressed hoarder may become overwhelmed and feel hopeless to change their condition. A hoarder with obsessive compulsive disorder may feel compelled to repeat patterns of behavior or have obsessive thoughts that make it difficult to break the cycle of hoarding. When these underlying conditions are treated, your loved one will be better able to take care of her belongings.
Take your loved one to a professional who is trained to deal with hoarding, depression, and OCD. Be sure to visit the therapist first to see if they seem like he seems knowledgeable and helpful so that you can avoid adding extra stress to your loved one.
There is hope in order. A person feels freer when they can move around and frustration levels drop when they can find what they are looking for right away.
When you loved one does make an effort to clear an area, be positive and praise the hoarder. This is a big step, and it is easy to lose the momentum at the beginning. Don't overdo the praise, however, because he knows that it isn't a big step in your life, and too much praise might be condescending.
You can build up her self-worth by reminding her of her positive traits. It is quite possible that she has a low sense of self, and makes everything else a priority in her life. She may think "I need to clean my bedroom," but gets distracted by having to work, helping others, trying to meet financial goals, or anything else. The bedroom gets put off again and again as new needs crop up. By helping her understand that the daily work must get done before the projects, and understand that she has to include herself on the priority list, she may be able to find the time to tackle that bedroom.
Change is difficult, and it takes bravery and courage to enforce change upon yourself. Even if the hoarder is aware of his condition, he may have a hard time initiating change. He needs to feel confident that he is capable of making a change, and that the efforts he makes in that direction will be positive. He may worry that it is too much work to clean the junk room, or may be resigned to the fact that it will just get filled again anyway.
He needs courage to let go of an item, knowing that he may find a need for it tomorrow. He needs to learn that the odds of him missing the item are very low, and if he does miss it, he will most likely easily be able to find a replacement for it.
Your support may help him find that courage.
The key is to fill her heart with joy, especially the kind that doesn't involve things. You can offer to go on outings with her to the park, for example, or find a volunteer activity that you can do together, like tutoring. Steer clear from activities that could possibly provide sources of cheap or free stuff, such as working in a soup kitchen or thrift store.
When you give gifts, give gifts that will be used up, like food or movie tickets, so that you don't add clutter to the house. Don't offer the hoarder your own belongings when you are clearing your house.
By filling her heart and her time with joyful activities that don't involve things, she will be able to get a new perspective, and you will be able to enjoy her personality and presence without having to be around the stuff.
Helping a Hoarder
It can be quite frustrating to see a hoarder suffer from the weight of all of her accumulations, and you may wish to rush in and clear out all of the clutter once and for all. However, helping in this manner may backfire and cause even greater difficulty for your loved one, and with your relationship. That doesn't mean that you have to give up. There are ways that you can support your loved one by providing her with:
- The hope of order
- The understanding to begin
- The courage to let go
- The return to the flow of life
- The joy of spending your time freely
© 2012 Shasta Matova