People who hoard are consumed by an obsessive collection of personal belongings that may seem worthless to others. Hoarding is not the same as collecting things, living with clutter or being a pack rat. It is a mental health disorder that can cause dangerous living environments, crippling shame and impair daily functions.
For those who hoard, and the people who love them, this condition can be devastating. Like an addict, many compulsive hoarders don’t recognize that they have a problem or can’t stop on their own.
If you suspect that your loved one is struggling with hoarding, you should:
Do your research. As an outside observer, hoarding can be hard to understand. Before you’re able help your loved one, learn as much as you can about this condition. Visit websites, consult with mental health professionals and attend support groups to better understand the fear, loneliness and anxiety that comes with hoarding.
Avoid taking over. Fight the temptation to step in and throw out your loved one’s possessions. People who hoard can experience serious emotional distress when their belongings are taken. Also, if the underlying cause of the hoarding isn’t addressed, this behavior will likely continue. Try to respect the meaning and attachment they have for their possessions as you work through the process together.
Be empathetic. People who hoard can become isolated and often have minimal support. Avoid being critical or judgmental about their living conditions. Set guidelines and boundaries together and talk about what intervention they are comfortable with. This will help build trust and respect and ensure that they feel safe and supported.
Seek professional help. Encouraging someone to reach out is not easy, especially if they aren’t ready. It may take multiple conversations and lots of patience before your loved one is willing to admit there’s an issue. Offer to accompany them to see their doctor for a referral to a health professional. Programs like VHA’s Extreme Cleaning Program that combine cleaning services with therapy, can help people regain control of their living space and lives.
Expect gradual change. Even if it wasn’t always obvious, those who hoard have most likely been struggling with these tendencies for years. You can’t expect things to get better over a weekend—be prepared for it to take time. If your loved one is ready to start decluttering, set small, achievable goals and celebrate each victory along the way. This will build momentum and boost their confidence.
The reasons behind hoarding and the severity of the condition can vary so much, which means there isn’t an easy one-size-fits-all solution. Your loved one will need your support, empathy and patience as they work on developing a healthy relationship with their belongings and themselves.