Organizing Hoarders


In my previous blog,  Organizing vs. Cleaning, I alluded to my work with hoarders, with the promise to go more in depth on this topic.

I often receive phone calls asking if I work with hoarders, and more often than not, it’s the friend of a hoarder calling.  When it’s the hoarder themselves who call, I rejoice, because then I know they’re seriously thinking of change, know it’s time, and have asked for the help needed to make it happen.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, “Hoarding is the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value. The behavior usually has deleterious effects—emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal—for a hoarder and family members.
For those who hoard, the quantity of their collected items sets them apart from other people. Commonly hoarded items may be newspapers, magazines, paper and plastic bags, cardboard boxes, photographs, household supplies, food, and clothing.  Hoarding can be related to compulsive buying (such as never passing up a bargain), the compulsive acquisition of free items (such as collecting flyers), or the compulsive search for perfect or unique items (which may not appear to others as unique, such as an old container).”

People often have collections, but collecting is not hoarding. Collectors show pride in their collection, know it has value, and honor the items by the way they care for them.  For hoarders, there’s almost always a sense of embarrassment over how out of control things have become. There is a sense of anxiety not only over the state of things, but the anxiety of actually having someone touch them, or having to go through the items.

So, how do I deal with hoarders?  As I tell the friends who call on behalf of others, if the person isn’t ready for change, then it’s not going to happen.  Often, the hoarder does not realize the extent of the problem or how it affects those around them.  But, as stated earlier, if the hoarder themselves call and have reached out for help, then a good portion of the battle is already won.

When dealing with hoarders, most of all I LISTEN.  I have to be very conscious of how they’re feeling throughout the process.  There have been instances where the person thought they were ready for the process, but after just a few hours or a couple of visits, have realized they just can’t deal with it yet.  Often, my business card is put in their estate file to have me take care of it when they’ll no longer be able to or won’t have a say.

As with all my clients, accountability is key.  With hoarders, it’s almost like unraveling a mess of Christmas lights to find out where the beginning is and where to start. Not to mix analogies, just like a line of dominoes, one area will affect another and another after that, and so on.  We have to figure out where to begin, which is not always easy. More often than not, I begin in the space that most directly affects their everyday life.

The first step is always the declutter, which involves going through every single item, piece by piece.  With hoarders, this step alone may take days, weeks, or sometimes even months.  Sometimes the client catches on and is able to work on this step without me after learning the “rules,” but more often than not, they require my presence to keep them accountable for what they choose to keep. One of the difficulties with the long process of this step is assuring them that I have the overall vision for the end result.  When you’re in the midst of the maze, the way out isn’t always clear, but I have the vision of what it will be when we’re finished.

As we’re going through items, and I see what is kept, I can then begin to devise plans to organize those items and set up working systems to ensure the clutter does not return.  That is perhaps the most difficult step for a true hoarder: to not fill every empty space with something! I’m always so pleased when I make a return visit and the cleared area is still clear!

Praise and reassurance are important when working with clients, but doubly so with hoarders. Reminding them that they are actually doing this, not me, gives that much- needed sense of accomplishment.  My clients will tell you I’m always asking, “How are you feeling?  Do we need a break?” and asking them to step back and look at what they’ve accomplished.

Organizing is a very emotional task for people, and even more so with hoarders. The average client can’t work more than 3 hours, but hoarders often can only handle an hour or two at a time because of the anxiety it causes, but once the process has begun, they gradually extend their time, and we move a little faster.  It’s a process that cannot be rushed.  Family or friends often ask me, “Can’t you just come in and do it for them?”  Yes, I could, but I guarantee it would be back in the original shape within a few months of my visit. The television shows make it look so easy, but the fact is, if there is no accountability on the part of the hoarder, then the behavior will not change.  If I do it for them, they may panic over where their items went, not know where things are that were kept, and buy more to replace the missing items, or fill up the space again.

Working with hoarders is a difficult process, but if they are ready for change and embrace the task, the end results are worth it. As with many things that cause anxiety, seeking the help of a mental health professional may help with this process.