Ask the Experts

Q: “How Can I Help a Sister Who Hoards and Resists New Ideas and Methods?”

How do you help someone who hoards? By focusing on safety first, allowing them to retain control, and never throwing anything away without their permission.

Q: “I live with my mother and sister, who refuse to throw anything away. My sister buys items in excessive amounts and refuses to donate and/or move things into our storage unit. My sister doesn’t drive and works remotely, but things have slowed down since the pandemic, so she currently has no income. A new bedroom set was purchased for her and she agreed to allow us to help her get rid of things. However, she doesn’t like my cleaning methods so now every piece of paper is a battle. My mom is an enabler. Any advice would be great!” – OhioSister

Hi OhioSister:

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 has hoarding behaviors, and it’s frustrating and painful for the whole family.

Since I don’t know all the circumstances – Was there an emotional trigger that led to the impulse purchasing? What is it specifically about your cleaning methods that your sister doesn’t like? Is the clutter specifically in your sister’s room or has it taken over the common living areas? – I’m going to focus on the best way for you to approach your sister in this process. But before we dive in, there are two important points I would like to mention.

First, I want to help you understand how your sister may be thinking about her possessions. Again, I want to be careful as I do not know your sister or her circumstances. But it might be that your sister sees her things as an extension of herself. For better or worse, her possessions and the purchasing of them may define her and give her life meaning and purpose. They may fill a void that is missing for her elsewhere.

Second, you must understand the first ground rule when working with someone who hoards: do not get rid of any of their possessions without their permission. It’s not only unhelpful; it’s potentially harmful. Your sister may feel put upon, pressured, or even threatened. She needs to feel in control of herself and her possessions. So the more demands you make, the more resistant and closed off she will be.

[Read: How Can I Face My Hoarding Tendencies Head On?]

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. Here’s how I would approach the situation.

You deserve to live in a home that is clean, safe, and functional. For me, that is non-negotiable. If the clutter has made common rooms impossible to use or stairwells and hallways difficult to navigate, then that should be your primary focus. Take the emotionality out of the equation and explain to her that the priority is to make the house safe for all of you in case of an emergency. You must be able to easily get out and have clear passages for others to get in.

Instead of trying to completely eliminate all her clutter, focus instead on clearing hallways, making sure her bedroom has clear pathways from the door to the windows, ensuring the kitchen and bathrooms are fully functional, etc.

Focus on setting realistic parameters so you can all live safely. What decisions does she want to make? What can she relinquish? While paper is important to her; perhaps the kitchen is not. Perhaps she will be willing to give up controlling other areas of your home if she feels she has control over her own belongings.

[Read: Love It, Use It, or Lose It]

If your sister is willing to let you help, start small. Ask her if you can arrange to just have the broken bed removed. Let her take the lead. Work together so she feels in control of the process. If that goes well, move on to asking her to identify 10 items she would be willing to store in your storage unit. Notice I didn’t say donate or dispose of. Let her do all the work; make all the decisions. Offer to drive her to the unit but stay clear of navigating her decision making.

Here’s my main takeaway: Though the road ahead might be a long one, keep reassuring your sister that the work is a true collaboration and that she is in charge of her decision making. Promise her that you will not go further or faster than she wants or is able. Make sure to celebrate any small successes and, above all, let her know you are proud of her as she moves forward.

Good Luck!

How to Help a Hoarder: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach 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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