3 Tips to Help a Hoarder


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Not the ordinary topic for YourTango, I know, but my experience with a local task force and the opportunity to interview multiple hoarders has left me with the impression that for many of us, dealing with a hoarder is not a question of "if" but "when".

Despite media attention, hoarding has only really been studied in the last fifteen years or so. Stereotypes, stigma, aversion, and misunderstanding are still the rule and not the exception.

The typical hoarder is a female, over 65, alone, and often socioeconomically disadvantaged. But hoarding knows no boundaries. The person may be young or old, single or married, living alone or in a family; white collar, blue collar, rich or poor, or anything in between.

Object hoarding can be separate from animal hoarding or the two can overlap. Object hoarding is the obsessive collection of items coupled with the refusal to discard leading to a build up of objects, trash, and clutter that can render a living area non-functional. Animal hoarding introduces the existence of live animals--strays or pets-- that are collected in such excess that they overwhelm the living space and capabilities of the hoarder, leading to unsafe or unhealthy conditions, the possibility of disease, and in some cases, the serious fact of animal cruelty or neglect.

Hoarders are unusually adept at restricting access to the hidden side of their lifestyle. This is because of their denial, shame, and resistance to help which synchs with societal values on privacy and self-determination. These work together so that hoarders are often discovered only after they've been at it awhile, even in urban or suburban settings.

But sooner or later the hoarder's situation spills over into the awareness of relatives, co-workers, neighbors, roommates, or friends. I provide three tips on what to do if you are faced with dealing with a hoarder.

First, adopt a non-judgmental attitude and the patience of Job. From many interviews I have learned that hoarders fear the judgment of others more than anything else, including loss of their own health or freedom. Patience is necessary because of their denial and extreme fears of losing control. They really cannot see the extent of their situation, at the same time they relate to it as if it were their lifeboat. Unless the situation has already reached the level of an imminent threat to the hoarder's self or others, you just have to go slowly.

Second, don't go it alone. Community task forces around the country have shown there is strength in numbers and varieties of perspective. You could take along any of the following: a social worker, a counselor, a nutritionist, a veterinarian or a vet tech, a professional organizer or life coach, a neighborhood advocate, a nurse, a pastor, a guardian or a liaison to government code or law enforcement. The idea is to come alongside the hoarder with sources of information and help who don't, at least in their initial approach, have an agenda to use power or administrative force. My own experience is that hoarders are people who got overwhelmed with some series of life events. Maybe they never recovered from the loss of loved ones, loss of a job, disability, a change in status or relationships, never connected with a community after a move. Many hoarders feel an acute sense of abandonment or a despair about being alone. As one put it, "The thirteenth pair of pajamas makes no sense except to a hoarder who thinks, 'If I've lost everything, at least I still have my stuff.'" Another helper with an area of expertise or added perspective could open up the discussion of the primary problem or set of problems that were in effect before the hoarding developed, and point the way to a different answer.

Third, maintain a firm grasp on the realities as you show genuine concern. Studies of human change show that we go through phases as we approach making a change--from pre-contemplation, to contemplation, to preparation-- all before taking action on a problem (Prochaska and DiClemente). In plain language, most people need to develop an awareness they have a problem before they can weigh the impact it is having on their lives and the pros and cons of how and when to address it. You can quadruple the length and tediousness of this process with hoarders who are masters at minimizing and rationalizing. The way this is done in the early stages of change is to keep asking how they are doing in their life as you allude to the attendant realities and consequences of their problem. How are they feeling about their cramped space or the decline in their health? The health of their animals? Do they get frustrated not being able to find things? Worried about being out of money for more necessary items? Do they get stressed about what the landlord or neighbors might do? Looking back on how they were five years ago, in general, are they better off or worse? The idea is to keep a bead on the real difficulties that start to accrue along with concern for the pain that is caused, looking for a point of leverage, where the hoarder might develop a willingness to get help or let you help them get to help.

For more on the initial research and writings about hoarding, you can visit the Hoarding of Animals and Research Consortium website at www.tufts.edu/vet/hoarding/index.html. You can also follow my continuing involvement and posts about this interesting topic on my Facebook page at Mark A. Chidley, Couples Counseling.

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