How do you help someone who is buried in stuff?
"I may need that some day." "It's still good." "I'm going to recycle that." "It was a good deal and I'm stocking up." "I can't get rid of that - it means too much to me."
The problem of hoarding has been highlighted in recent years because of widely publicized cases and television shows about it. Hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them, that often creates cramped, unsafe living conditions. Hoarders' homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter.
How can you make a family member, friend or consumer recognize that his or her hoarding is a problem and get them help? Unfortunately, in most cases, you can't. If the person who is hoarding is an adult who is legally competent to manage his or her own affairs and the clutter is not immediately life-threatening, the person has the right to hoard, even though it might have terrible consequences for his or her quality of life.
Some researchers estimate that about half of one percent of the population suffers from compulsive hoarding, but the actual number may be much higher. People usually start hoarding during childhood or early adolescence, although the problem usually does not become severe until the person is an adult, when the symptoms are often severe and difficult to treat.
Hoarding is not the result of someone being lazy, dirty or negligent. Currently, many researchers consider hoarding to be a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, for some people, hoarding also may be related to impulse control disorders, depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder or certain personality traits.
Researchers report that people who hoard have problems with information processing. They have difficulty categorizing their possessions (i.e., what is valuable and what is not), and they have difficulty making decisions about what to do with possessions. They have unusually strong positive feelings when getting new items, strong negative feelings when considering getting rid of items, and strong beliefs that items are valuable or useful, even when other people do not want them. They feel responsible for objects and sometimes think of inanimate objects as having feelings. Hoarders may become anxious and angry at the mere suggestion of getting rid of items that they have held onto for years. When confronted with their behavior, they often claim that it is no problem, even when the clutter clearly interferes with their lives.
Hoarders can become incapacitated and disabled by their habits, and their lives frequently become disorganized and unmanageable. Their home lives can be rather isolated, and socializing is often a problem. They are unable to have visitors or even repairmen come into their homes because they do not want others to see, and judge, the clutter.
Someone who hoards will not welcome any attempts by family and friends to help with de-cluttering. While it may be tempting to argue with a hoarder, this kind of direct confrontation rarely works. The harder you argue, the more the person is likely to become defensive. Hoarders whose homes are cleared without their consent often experience extreme distress and may become further attached to their possessions, leading to their refusal of future help.
Until the person is internally motivated to change, they may not accept any offer to help. Developing a personal relationship is a critical factor in helping an older person to work on his or her hoarding problem. Experts recommend some general principles to guide conversations with someone who hoards:
Show empathy. While you do not necessarily agree with everything the person says, being empathetic means you are willing to listen and to try to see things from his or her perspective.
Respect autonomy. You are dealing with an adult who has freedom of choice about his or her possessions. Ask what he or she wants to do, rather than just saying what you want: "What do you think you would like to do about the clutter in the home?" "How do you suggest we proceed?"
Help the person recognize that his or her actions are inconsistent with his or her greater goals or values. Ask: "What's really important to you in life?" "How would you like your life to be five years from now?" Discuss whether the person's acquiring or difficulty organizing or getting rid of things fits with those goals and values: "You've told me that friendships are very important to you; how well can you pursue that goal, given the way things are right now?" Helping people who hoard understand how their problem interferes in living the life they desire can be a powerful motivator, especially as it pertains to being able to live independently.
State and federal laws mandate that older adults must be protected from abuse or neglect that may result from a hoarding situation. Adult protective service agencies and area agencies on aging may be of special assistance when intervening with older adults, while respecting their independence.
Treatment of hoarding can be difficult because researchers are not yet sure which treatment is best. Try to find a therapist or other mental health provider who has experience in treating hoarding. While therapy can be intense and time-consuming, it can pay off in the long run.