Most of us know what it feels like to be hit by the pang of, "What if I need it later?" when throwing something away. or cleaning out a closet. You might want to hang on to something because it reminds you of a loved one or a wonderful event. These feelings are normal and most of us fill our spaces with decorations, items that are sentimental or we find pleasing to look at. We fill our garages with so much stuff that our cars remain parked in the driveway. But for an estimated 5 percent of the U.S. population, throwing away items causes anxiety. They keep everything. They are known as hoarders.
Compulsive hoarding has several characteristics:
- It involves acquiring large numbers of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value. It also involves the failure to discard of these items.
- Living spaces are unable to be used for their intended purpose because of the clutter from the items.
- The hoarding causes significant distress or impairment.
Hoarding can interfere with a person’s ability to function on a daily basis, stopping them from showering, cooking or cleaning. It can create unsanitary living conditions. It can cause a fire hazard or trap your loved one inside their home in an emergency. Family members might be tempted to simply rent a dumpster and begin tossing items but this is not the best way to help someone who is a hoarder and could potentially make the problem worse.
The following are tips to help you approach and help a family member or loved one who is a hoarder:
Before you begin, learn about hoarding behavior. Understand the causes (anxiety) and the reasons for the hoarding. The clutter of items often makes your loved one feel safe. Without them he is anxious. Read information from the reputable online sources. Go to the The more you understand about this type of behavior, the better you can approach the situation with compassion and understanding.
Look for help. Don’t try to take on this task by yourself. Check online for support groups or talk to a mental health professional. Work together to create a plan for approaching your loved one. Helping someone who is a hoarder takes time, energy and commitment. At times it is frustrating. Having support for you in place before you begin gives you someplace to turn to throughout the process. Your loved one must also work with a therapist. Throwing items away is only one part of the recovery process. The other is to work on the issues behind the hoarding.
Have realistic expectations. While you might hope that your loved one is going to be open to the idea of cleaning up and clearing out his space, the reality is that he is going to be anxious, scared and resistant. Keep in mind that helping someone who is a hoarder is a process, not a one time clean-up event. Understand that cleaning out all the items isn’t resolving the issue behind the hoarding. Be patient, with your loved one and with yourself.
Establish trust. If you approach the situation with an armful of trash bags, your loved one is going to resist your efforts. Instead, let your loved one know that you will not come in when he is not home and begin throwing things away. Remember, your loved one attaches a deep meaning to every item, even if it is a piece of trash, and you must start the process by acknowledging this.
View any small step as progress. Once you decide to help your loved one clean up the clutter, you probably want the process to quickly move forward. But for those who hoard, this is a slow and painful process. It might take half of a day to go through one small stack of papers. Be encouraging and recognize that the small stack of papers has been sorted rather than focusing on the time it took to get there.
Offer alternatives. If you want your loved one to talk with a therapist, don’t make an appointment without involving him in the process. For example, you might talk about whether joining a support group, working with a therapist individually or group therapy is more preferable. If you want to clear the area so your loved one can take a shower, talk about options such as throwing items out, packing them in boxes or donating them. Giving him choices and involving him in the process helps him feel more in control.
If you believe the hoarding it causing a health hazard or is unsafe, you may need to speed up the process to make it safer. Talk with a therapist or other mental health professional before doing anything and make a plan of action. Decide what needs to be done to make the environment safe and start with that before trying to change the environment completely. In cases of animal hoarding, it may be necessary to intervene and have the animals removed from the house.
"Compulsive Hoarding," Date Unknown, Staff writer, AnxietyUK.org
"Hoarding Disorder," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, American Psychiatric Associaton
"How to Help the Hoarder in Your Life: Some Suggestions for Family and Friends," Date Unknown, Renae M. Reinardy, Psy.D., LP, International OCD Foundation
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.