How do you help a hoarder? What if you ARE one? Find out the definition of what a hoarder is, and get practical suggestions for helping yourself or others who may be afflicted with this disorder.
Have you ever seen the t.v. show Hoarders? Do you know someone who is a hoarder? Do you think YOU might be a hoarder? How can you tell? When is the line crossed between simply accumulating clutter, to hoarding?
I recently spoke with hoarding expert Annemarie Roberts of Steri-Clean. If you’ve never heard of Steri-Clean, it’s a company created by Cory Chalmers, who also created the t.v. show Hoarders. Annemarie and I spoke in depth about hoarding, and the things I learned are fascinating. So if you know a hoarder, (or think you might be one), read on! Help is at hand!
(Just so you know, I was not compensated in any way for doing this review and post. I was impressed by Annemarie’s compassion and her dedication to helping people truly change their lives by changing their environment. It’s a passion we both share!)
First, I was curious to learn how someone knows if they are a hoarder. Annemarie explained that a person is considered a “hoarder” if their possessions impede their ability to function day by day, and if they cannot live in a safe and hygienic manner. Two examples are if you cannot get to your bedroom because the hallway is completely blocked off, or you cannot cook in your kitchen because your counters are covered and your oven is blocked. She told me about one person she helped who was sleeping on her stairs because she was unable to access her bed.
I was very curious to know how someone becomes a hoarder. I didn’t know if people just grew up with hoarder parents, and so they didn’t know any different, or if this gradually manifested itself over a period of time. Annemarie explained that most hoarding is precipitated by some kind of trauma in a person’s life. The death of a loved one, a divorce, or sometimes depression. (I know I’m not motivated to clean when I’m depressed!) Sometimes the hoarding is a result of a brain injury caused by an accident. Whatever the trigger, hoarding does not mean that a person is lazy or messy. It’s actually an indication of a deeper mental issue where the hoarder tries to replace a missing need with all the stuff they gather.
There are different types of hoarders. Some hoard information (such as books, college lectures, papers, etc.) Some hoard clothing. Some are “shopping” hoarders. They order things from QVC or online, but once the packages arrive, the boxes just sit in their homes, unopened. This is because they get an initial rush when they purchase the item, but by the time the item arrives, that feeling has faded, and they are no longer excited about what they ordered. Some people hoard trash. Some people hoard animals. These people are kind-hearted souls who usually start out rescuing animals, but then things get out of hand.
Annemarie and I talked about my own home organization program (The Transform Your Home, Transform Your Life Program), and how a main component is getting people to keep only those things they love. This is problematic for hoarders, because they love it all! They have a difficult time disassociating from the objects they own.
Hoarding affects every part of a person’s life, from their bodies, to their minds, to their relationships with family members. It can cause deep rifts. One daughter said about her mother, “To my mom, possessions are more important than her kids.” This is how the family member of a hoarder might feel, not knowing that hoarding is a mental disorder and a compulsion that people cannot control without help.
So how do you help a hoarder?
- They must want to be helped. You’ve heard the old saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. This is absolutely true for hoarders (and everybody, honestly). In my own organizing program, I teach that you can never throw away other people’s things. It’s the same with a hoarder. You cannot go in and clean up their house without their permission. They will be utterly traumatized, and then the problem will get worse. They will just hold onto all their possessions more tightly in the future.
- Use humor. Annemarie said that she and her husband once worked with a client who had eight crutches. Her husband asked the client, “How many arms do you have?” The client laughed and admitted that she could probably get rid of some of the crutches.
- Don’t act disgusted. Hoarders are already filled with shame and embarrassment. One thing Annemarie tells people when she goes in to clean is that “we’ve seen worse.” Many times, hoarders think they are the only ones who live this way. Let them know they are not alone, and that they are still of value.
- Don’t treat their stuff like trash. Although what we see might look like trash to us, it is meaningful to the hoarder. Don’t make them feel like what they have collected doesn’t matter or isn’t of worth.
- Help them feel good about donating their things. We all feel good when we help other people, and if hoarders can see that their possessions are helping others, they are much more willing to part with them.
- Help them get psychiatric help (if they are willing). Since hoarding is really a disorder of the mind, cleaning up the home is just a temporary solution if the underlying issues are not addressed. Steri-Clean (in Colorado) is working on setting their clients up with one free counseling session with a professional counselor who specializes in hoarding. (Other Steri-Clean franchises may or may not offer this service). If the hoarder is not willing to get psychiatric help (or can’t afford it), they can go to hoardingcleanup.com for an online, anonymous support group. The Steri-Clean website also has a chat feature so people can get one-on-one support.
What if you are a hoarder and you know you need professional help?
That’s where Steri-Clean comes in. I asked Annemarie what the process is once someone contacts Steri-Clean.
- It all starts with a phone call from the person wanting help. If a family member or loved one calls and wants to set something up, Steri-Clean declines. The hoarder has to be ready and willing to be helped.
- Once it is determined that the potential client is willing to have help, Steri-Clean sets up an appointment to come to the home and do an appraisal. They give you a quote as to the cost of their services and estimate the time it will take. Most jobs take 1-3 days.
- When the Steri-Clean crew arrives, they first ask the client to identify anything they are looking for that is lost, and which specific things they want to keep.
- Next, they help the client identify which things they are willing to get rid of (such as old magazines).
- As they help the client go through their home, they categorize things into several categories: what stays in the home, what gets put in storage, what gets thrown out, and what gets donated.
- Steri-Clean will often clean out the garage first and then use it as a “holding area” for other items as they go through the rest of the home.
- The most important space for the client, sometimes called their “nest,” is saved for last. This is the place where the client spends the majority of their time and feels the most safe. It could be their bedroom, or a chair, etc.
As I spoke with Annemarie, I was impressed by her compassion and caring. She truly feels it is her mission to help people reclaim their lives, and said what an honor it was for Steri-Clean to help.