Ask the Experts

Q: How Can I Help a Hoarder?

We have a family member who is a hoarder. She desperately needs help and has allowed us to try — but only if we stay within her very strict and unproductive guidelines. The clutter is getting serious, and overwhelming

Q: “How can I help a hoarder who has asked for help, but puts too many stipulations on what, when, and how we can do it. Family members have tried several times over the last decade to make progress helping her get organized within her strict guidelines, but eventually everyone gives up. Her teenage children have given up and actually add to the problem now by simply stuffing things places to get them out of sight. The home has become an unhealthy environment overridden with dust and pet hair. It is piled high with clothes, papers, old mail, gifts purchased but never given, hundreds of old toys and books, hundreds of VHS tapes…”  –Concerned Family

Hi Concerned Family:

I applaud you for being so sensitive to your sister’s needs and for wanting to help. I’ve worked with many families where a member had hoarding behaviors, and it is frustrating and painful for the family to feel so helpless.

Since I don’t know all the circumstances – Was there an emotional trigger that led to the hoarding behavior? Who lives in the home with your sister? Even the level of hoard (check out the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s Clutter Hoarding Scale to help you evaluate. It’s free!) – I’m going to focus on the best way for you and your family to approach your sister in this process. But before we dive in, there are two important points I would like to mention.

[Self-Test: Is Your Clutter and Disorganization Out of Control?]

First, I want to help you understand how your sister may be thinking about her possessions. The best way hoarding was ever described to me was this: “Hoarding is NOT defined by the number of possessions you have, but by how the acquisition and management of those possessions affects the owner.”

I always ask my clients to name their “10s” — those non-negotiable items that they couldn’t bear to let go of. But here’s the catch: not everything can be a 10. Because if everything is a 10, then nothing is a 10. And that is the true definition of someone who hoards. They assign the same level of significance to everything — whether it is an old grocery list or their marriage certificate — and can’t differentiate anything’s level of importance.

Second, you must understand why she is putting so many stipulations in place. Since the first ground rule when working with someone that hoards is that you do not get rid of anything without their permission, you can only imagine how your sister is feeling. Stuffing things in places to get them out of sight or getting rid of items without her knowing is not only unhelpful; it can be harmful. She may feel put upon, pressured, or even threatened. Your sister needs to feel in control of herself and her possessions. So the more demands that your family makes on her, the more resistant and closed off she will be.

I know this is going to be hard to hear, but you might not be able to help your sister; at least not in the way you want to.

If your sister is willing to let you help, then let me give you some tools to use.

1. Let HER define the goals. Ask her what her short- and long-term goals are for limiting the hoard in her home? What does she envision her home looking like after the process? Perhaps her short-term goal is to be able to clear the path from her bathroom to her bedroom. Her long-term goal might be she wants to be able to cook Christmas Eve dinner in her kitchen.

2. Next, write down these goals in a notebook for your sister to keep. By defining the goals and writing them down, you will eliminate the back-and-forth dialogue AND give you both something to focus on. What does that look like? Perhaps if she is struggling to make a decision to get rid of an item in her home, you can refer back to her goals by asking, “How is keeping this… going to further YOUR goal of…?” I would also suggest writing down any decisions she does make. Logging small successes leads to bigger ones!

3. If she is willing, ask her to do the exercise I mention above. If giving away gifts she has received is her “10,” perhaps old mail might be her “1.” If she is able to rate her possessions, suggest to her that you start with something easy for her to work on. Tread lightly as you build momentum.

4. Reassure her that she deserves to live in a home that is clean, safe, and functional. Take the emotionality out of the equation and focus on setting realistic parameters. So instead of trying to completely eliminate her clutter, focus instead on clearing paths to rooms, making her kitchen fully functional, etc.

Here’s my main take away: Though the road ahead might be a long one, reassure your sister that the work is a true collaboration (fully supported by friends and family) and therefore she is not alone in this process. Promise her that you will not go further or faster than she wants or is able. And let her take small steps to recover her home and her life. Good Luck!

[Read This: Stop the Slide from Clutter Into Hoarding]

Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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