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5 Ways to Help a Hoarder

Helping a hoarder doesn't mean spending a single epic weekend scrubbing.
Helping a hoarder doesn't mean spending a single epic weekend scrubbing.
DCL

The images are startling: Entire rooms filled with trash, newspapers stacked to the ceiling, dozens of animals packed into a single home. Exits blocked, appliances buried, showers filled with mail instead of shampoo. It's enough to make you run the other way -- and many people do. But if it's someone you care about doing the hoarding, you might just want to stick around and help.

This, it turns out, is much easier said than done. It's not a case of simply going in with a box of trash bags. In fact, that might only make the problem worse.

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When hoarding first became part of the public consciousness in the '90s, the overriding response was one of disgust. Now, we know it's a mental disorder, and one that can be overcome. But it's not easy, and being part of the solution takes a light, nonjudgmental touch.

This really is the first step for anyone who hopes to help a hoarder get better: Approach the situation without criticism.

Compulsive hoarding is usually linked to an anxiety disorder.
Compulsive hoarding is usually linked to an anxiety disorder.
DCL

Imagine someone walking into your home, dumping your jewelry, art and family heirlooms into a trash bag and throwing it in a dumpster out back.

That's sort of how a hoarder would feel if you came in and cleared out all that "trash" getting in the way of a healthier life. In order to even begin to help, you need to establish trust by making it clear you will not sneak in the middle of the night and clear the living room of all those newspapers. Compulsive hoarding is typically considered to be a component of an anxiety disorder, in which case the behavior of collecting, and keeping, all of that stuff is helping your friend to feel safe. If he or she thinks you're going to destroy that lifeline, you won't get anywhere. And if you do destroy it, the first thing your loved one will do is start collecting again.

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So approach the situation with caution and compassion. Rather than attacking the hoarding behavior, try to understand it. There's a misguided but intricate logic to this coping mechanism, and respecting that is the only way to even begin to help.

Then, you can start making your arguments for change…

Many hoarders don't leave the house for fear of the outside world (and the people in it). Some don't cook because the kitchen is inaccessible, don't bathe because the bathroom is stuffed with mail, and can't park in their garage because it's filled to bursting with machine parts. Their physical existence is dictated by the things they collect.

Jumping into a discussion on the existential drawbacks of living this way is probably not going to help, at least not at the beginning. Start small, basic, and in the moment: Do you want to take a shower? Maybe we could start going through the mail in the bathroom to make some space.

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The books you store in the oven, maybe we could pick a few to donate so someone else can read them and we could make dinner together?

It does get more complicated where animals are involved, because they need to be removed, and the people who hoard them typically love them and simply can't see the harm they're doing. This is one of the places where some outside help might be necessary.

When it comes to dealing with animal hoarding, you may be able to help by quoting the experts, especially animal-welfare organizations.

Someone who lives with 50 cats is, most likely, quite attached to them and doesn't want to give them up. On the other hand, they probably do care about their well-being. One way to get this type of hoarder to see the harm in their behavior is to provide reliable testimony to the health dangers faced by these animals. It's possible that even if your loved one rejects your assessment of the situation, he or she may consider the opinion of animal rights' proponents or veterinary organizations.

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Use specific examples of why it's unsafe to have so many animals in one small space, not only for the animals but also for the person or people living with them. A hoarder probably feels a great sense of responsibility for these creatures, so try to provide real-world scenarios describing a few safe places where the animals could go.

Here, we get to another important part of helping a hoarder overcome the disorder: offering choices.

Offer hoarders alternatives to suggested treatment plans.
Offer hoarders alternatives to suggested treatment plans.
DCL

Anxiety disorders are complex and varied. Among them is a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and some experts believe hoarding to be located somewhere on the OCD spectrum. One of the things anxiety disorders, including OCD, have in common is that whatever coping mechanism someone chooses, the goal of that behavior is to exert control over one's life.

Taking control by clearing out someone's "junk" or calling the authorities or making a therapy appointment is not a great place to start (although it may come to that). This approach will only cause greater anxiety and therefore a more intense reliance on the coping mechanism -- in this case, hoarding. For each solution you feel might be beneficial, offer alternatives. For instance, professional help could be in the form of group therapy, support groups or individual therapy, and "getting rid of" the hoarded objects could mean donating them, throwing them out, or even moving them to a separate storage space for the time being, just to get them out of the bedroom.

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Of course, storing the stuff somewhere else is not a long-term solution, and in many hoarding cases that might be just as terrifying as throwing the stuff in a Dumpster. In the end, if the problem involves health and/or safety concerns and your attempts at helping gently go nowhere, the only way to help might be to step in and take control of the situation.

Hoarding is often treated as an obsessive-compulsive disorder might be -- with therapy and medication.
Hoarding is often treated as an obsessive-compulsive disorder might be -- with therapy and medication.
©iStockphoto.com/killerb10

Sometimes, flat-out intervention can be unavoidable. Hoarding, in extreme cases, can lead to health risks, both for the humans and any animals involved, and especially if the hoarded item is what others might call literal trash. There may be real safety concerns if entrances and exits are blocked or if flammable collectibles are stored near a heat source.

If the slow, gentle approach fails or you believe the situation is an emergency, the best thing to do is call for help. Removal of the objects and animals, accompanied by therapy, may be the safest way to handle the situation, but you'll probably want to call in (or at least get advice from) a professional. Most mental-health experts and organizations provide resources on and help for those suffering with hoarding disorder, so start there. A look online or in a phonebook for psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers should yield quick results.

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It won't be an easy road, and no one guarantees results, but if you can get your loved one to accept there is a problem and that you truly want to help, that's a step in the right direction. Ultimately, the rest is up to the hoarder.

For more information on hoarding and other mental health issues, look over the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Borcharde, Therese J. "Compulsive Hoarding and 6 Tips to Help." Psych Central. March 19, 2011. (June 28, 2011) http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/03/19/compulsive-hoarding-and-6-tips-to-help/
  • Help for Hoarders: What really works? Neat & Simple Living. (June 28, 2011) http://blog.neatandsimple.com/2009/08/helping-hoarders.html#
  • Span, Paula. "Help for Hoarding." The New York Times. January 28, 2010. (June 28, 2011) http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/28/help-for-hoarding/
  • The Tormented Hoarder. The Dr. Oz Show. (June 28, 2011) http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/tormented-hoarder

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