Hoarding is a disorder marked by individuals who are unwilling to relinquish possessions that would otherwise be viewed as without worth to most people. Because of this, hoarding often leads to a devastating cycle in the manner in which the hoarder refuses to part ways with items, and as a result, bombards their own living space with unusable or unuseful items that eventually perpetuate hazards and decreases the quality of living for both the hoarder and those who come in contact with the effected environment.

There are five levels to hoarding. With each level, the hoarding increases in intensity. At the beginning, or level one stage, hoarding individuals may have trouble letting items go, may shop compulsively or a combination of both. In either case, the home might have little to no odor, and all entryways will likely be accessible.

In advanced stages, however, the living environment encompassing the hoarder becomes inhabitable. There may be structural damage done to the home as a result of negligence. There may be human feces around the home, visible pests and the home may have a strong odor. Because of its unlivable state, the hoarder may not live in the home, but rather, with a friend or family member.

As for the source of hoarding, it can generally be developed at a young age, though many may develop hoarding in their adult years. Unfortunately, hoarding is one of the rare disorders that only worsens with age. It is often related to traumatic events, anxiety or stress in the life of the individual who begins hoarding. Even still, there isn’t one specific reason that people begin to hoard. It often varies from person to person.

The Many Perils of Hoarding

Hoarding behavior surpasses being a mere inconvenience for visitors, neighbors and the hoarder, themselves. Rather, hoarding can be hazardous, and even deadly in some cases, as there are some levels of hoarding that can include biohazards that threaten the health of the occupants within the immediate structure, those living nearby and even the local community.

As trash, waste and filth increases within the home, there is an increased chance for rodents and pests to begin invading the home or property. Moreover, this type of environment can prove inhabitable after it reaches a certain point, as animals kept as pets, and even the hoarder themselves, are at an extreme risk for illness or death, depending on the level of contamination of the home in question.

In addition, cluttered homes pose a major risk to hoarders who are elderly, as many of the items, appliances and fixtures needed for daily living may be blocked, unclean or inaccessible. Thus, even simple tasks, such as cooking, eliminating waste or bathing, may prove overwhelming for the hoarding individual, driving them further into loneliness, despair and isolation.

Why “Helping” Doesn’t Always Help

If you’ve attempted to help a hoarder, you’ve likely experienced the stifling bitterness, resentment, and even rage that comes along with it. Contrary to belief, helping a hoarder in a way that might seem helpful to you, may not be received as such on the other end.

In fact, those who attempt to help hoarders are often met with confrontation and accusations of betrayal from those they love the most. In most cases, the people wishing to assist hoarders in clearing out their home have the best interest of the hoarder in mind, but this does not change the fact that the hoarder doesn’t see the situation the same way. Instead, the hoarder may register the attempt to clean or declutter their space as something you are intentionally doing to them against their will, and for them, it may become deeply personal.

Because of this fact, cleaning up a hoarder’s living space, or threatening to have it professionally cleaned, can spell trouble for relationships. Not only is the hoarder likely to resist you, but he or she will likely be confused as to why you even thought it was necessary in the first place. Remember, people that hoard do not often perceive what they are doing as being a problem. Therefore, your attempt to solve something that, to them, does not require a solution can be received as an affront, on many levels.

There are, of course, extreme scenarios in which an emergency clean up may be unavoidable. Sometimes, hoarding situations escalate to the point of obtaining an eviction from a landlord or other entity, due to the uncleanness of the property and the effects that the hoarding has had on the community and neighbors.

To stunt an eviction process, however, those advocating for the hoarder in question may benefit from looking into services, such as the Fair Housing Act, and other programs available in their communities that may potentially offer protection for hoarders on the basis of disability. However, if no progress is achieved and an eviction is made, or if there is reason to believe that the hoarder or other occupants of the affected home’s life is at risk, emergency clean up may be the only solution.

What to Expect After a Forced Clean Up

As previously mentioned, an individual with hoarding disorder may become hostile and volatile at the thought of losing the items they love. It is because of this that forced clean ups are not advisable unless it is an extreme situation in which one’s life might be at risk.

If you choose to involve the authorities in regards to the person involved in hoarding activity, you should prepare for conflict, and potentially making the problem worse. In many cases, once a clean out has transpired without the approval of the occupant themselves, the hoarder feels insecure and betrayed, and becomes even more attached to the items they still retain.

How To Assist a Hoarder in His or Her Recovery

Rather than force a hoarder to clean up or “surprise” a person with hoarding disorder with a complimentary clean up while he or she is away, there may be other solutions available that may make the process go much more smoothly. Consider the following:

  1. Empathize– One of the most effective ways to approach the issue of hoarding with an individual who displays hoarding behavior is to come from a stance of loving compassion rather than harsh judgement. Though it may feel feigned at times, approaching the issue with sensitivity is likely to get you further than approaching it with brash remarks and encroaching behavior. A great way to achieve this level of compassion with genuinity is to educate yourself on the disorder before gently bringing up the issue with your loved one. By understanding more about the disorder, you’ll be less likely to act out of your emotions, and instead, can logically approach the issue in an effective way.
  2. Avoid Enabling– Although it is important to empathize with the individual that shows hoarding behavior, this is not synonymous with enabling the individual. Keep from enabling the hoarder in your life by refusing to store their items in your home, not going on shopping trips with them where they might be tempted to buy more items and not buying them items that they can add to their hoarding collection.
  3. Take It One Step at a Time– Once you’ve gotten past the hard part of bringing up the situation, it may be time to explore the idea of, slowly, organizing some of the items the hoarder has in his or her possession. Don’t expect your loved one to be overly excited about this, as this may sound like a frightful thing to them, at first. Go slow, and allow the hoarder to keep the things they feel they need, as long as it does not infringe on the health and safety of those occupying the structure. Once finished, celebrate these little successes with small rewards such as dinner, ice cream or anything that your recovering loved one may enjoy.

  4. Don’t Do It All Yourself– As you go about assisting your loved ones, it is important that you don’t do any cleaning or organizing of his or her home, by yourself. The hoarder must take ownership of the process. Though hard, if he or she refuses to join you in the organizing and cleaning process, you may be better off waiting until they are ready. The exception to this rule would be if your loved one is in the hospital or is physically unable to help. In this case, gaining their blessing for you to go about cleaning their home and then hiring a professional cleaning company, is likely your best bet.
  5. Avoid Sneak Attacks– Though tempting, families and friends of hoarders should never attempt to take possession of or throw out a hoarder’s belongings without their permission. Yes, the home may be a mess and may be inhabitable, but you may be risking your relationship to the individual by going about the business of cleaning up their place against their will.
  6. Seek Resources– As previously mentioned, there may be resources in your community to help individuals suffering with hoarding disorder. By making a few phone calls, you may be surprised at what accommodations and services are available to you and your loved one, right within your own community.

Entreat Your Loved Ones, But Don’t Force Them to Comply

All in all, it is important that you approach hoarding loved ones with gentleness, sensitivity and compassion. By educating yourself on the matter, you can provide a loving atmosphere that allows the person you are helping to be open and vulnerable, and maybe even willing to allow a little cleaning and organizing of their home, one step at a time.

To effectively assist a person with hoarding disorder, you must educate yourself thoroughly on the matter, and refuse to contribute to hoarding behaviors and actions displayed by the hoarder, themselves. By achieving this balance between setting boundaries and showing compassion, you may be able to get your loved one on the path towards the change they so desperately need, with time.