If you have a parent or relative who has a growing collection of clutter, there could be a hoarding disorder within your family. It might start out as a collection of knick-knacks or several piles of paper. Over time hoarding tendencies can escalate, especially after a traumatic event like a death or divorce. To create order in a loved one’s home, it’s important to understand what’s behind the hoarding.
Identifying Hoarding Disorder
Just because a loved one has too much stuff, or has a hard time letting items go, doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a hoarding disorder. Unlike a packrat’s stash of boxes in a corner of the basement, or a collector’s carefully organized wall display, hoarders take accumulating to the extreme.
Hoarding signs include a “collection of unusual and useless items, magazines, rotten food, hair, fingernails – at times pets can be hoarded and neglected,” says Ann Russo, a psychotherapist and founder of AMR Mental Health Therapy.
“This person will usually have anxiety about throwing anything away.”
The items in a hoarder’s home might fill the counters, stairways, and hallways. There are often rooms that cannot be used because they are filled with clutter. Stored belongings might spill into the garage, yard, or vehicles.
Hoarders may keep to themselves and avoid having company over to their home. In some cases, the space can become unhealthy and unsafe for day-to-day activities.
Develop an Action Plan
To help a loved one with hoarding disorder, take a slow and steady approach.
“Don’t feel like you need to get rid of everything immediately,” says Kelly Barnes, the daughter of a hoarder and the co-owner of JDog Junk Removal & Hauling Brunswick.
“Hoarders often have severe emotional attachments to objects in their home that you may not understand, and they often like to feel control over what stays and goes.”
They may also be dealing with other mental issues, such as depression or an anxiety disorder.
Talk to your family member about taking a few steps to make the home safe and clean. Once your loved one is committed to organizing, follow these decluttering tips.
1. Clean Up First
“Start with simple goals like clearing walkways, hallways, and doorways,” Barnes says. Have a conversation with your family member about the dangers associated with blocked paths, such as fire and tripping hazards. Remove items to make enough space to move through the home.
Then look at rooms, one at a time.
“The kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom are the most frequently used areas of the home,” Barnes says.
Talk to your relative about the benefits of being able to cook a meal, use a bathroom free of hazards, and sleep in a clean room. Get rid of trash and items with no sentimental value from these areas.
2. Move on to Paper
Use three bins or boxes when sorting through piles of paper. Put items that can be recycled, such as newspapers and old magazines in one, papers to be shredded in another, and personal documents, such as bank statements, in a third.
Work in shifts and clean up after every session. If you agree with the hoarder to work on a pile of papers for an hour, spend 50 minutes sorting. Then take the last 10 minutes to deal with the boxes or bins. Place the items for recycling in a recycling bin, shred documents, and look through personal papers or store them in a place where other sensitive information is being held. Better yet, scan what you can and only keep the most essential documents.
3. Don’t Delay Donations
When your loved one agrees to part with an item, get it out of the house “the sooner the better,” says Barnes.
This way, the hoarder is less likely to go find the piece and bring it back into the home. If you spend an afternoon working in a room and fill a donation box, take the box to charity as soon as the decluttering session is over.
Kitchen gadgets, dishes, and decorations could be taken to a thrift store where they can find a good home.
4. Secure a Storage Space
Hoarders often see value in items around their home. To get an idea of what a piece might be worth, do a quick price check on eBay or Facebook Marketplace.
You might come across a good number of pieces that are valuable and could be sold. Rather than dealing with them right away, put them in a spot where they can be sorted through later, such as a storage unit.
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When storing items, “you need to have a plan in place,” Barnes says. You might make a list of the items with their estimated value and decide which person in the family will list the goods on Craigslist or eBay. Then talk about what will be done with the cash from the sales.
5. Reduce the Pile of Clothes
For overflowing closet spaces or rooms packed with apparel, start with gear that is less sentimental.
“Don’t ever force it,” says Elsa Elbert, owner of Composed Living.
If there are stacks of new clothes in good condition that don’t fit your loved one, take them to a consignment shop.
Look at closets together and talk about the advantages of having clean clothes in a clutter free space. Sort through apparel by categories, such as socks, pajamas, and shirts. Keep items that are in good shape, fit comfortably, and that your loved one wants to wear. Get rid of anything with holes or rips, as well as clothing that doesn’t fit.
6. Hire a Professional
If the hoarding problem has existed for a number of years, the amount of stuff in the home could be overwhelming. Bringing in a professional might ease any family tensions and make the process easier.
“Hiring a professional organizer removes you from the emotional history, and the hoarder may feel more comfortable working with a professional,” Elbert says.
If the home is in poor condition, it could be unsafe to tackle it on your own. If you see signs of rotting food, animal droppings, blocked windows or mold, call a professional cleaning service or junk removal company. The Institute for Challenging Disorganization provides a reference guide you can use to evaluate the condition of your loved one’s home.
7. Work on the Underlying Issues
Simply cleaning a home will not solve a hoarding issue.
“The problem is not clutter – it is often an underlying issue usually having to do with some sense of a loss of control or trauma,”
To help your loved one recover, reach out to a treatment center that specializes in hoarding.
“The family unit, depending on the situation, may all benefit from family therapy,” says Russo.