If your loved one is hoarding, you may be desperate for ideas about how to help. You probably have already figured out that trying to reason with the person or throwing away excess possessions isn't effective, and may actually have exacerbated the issue. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), people hoard because "they believe that an item will be useful or valuable in the future. Or they feel it has sentimental value, is unique and irreplaceable, or too big a bargain to throw away. They may also consider an item a reminder that will jog their memory, thinking that without it they won’t remember an important person or event. Or because they can’t decide where something belongs, it’s better just to keep it."
As you know, hoarding causes serious issues—emotionally, physically, socially, financially, and perhaps even legally—for the hoarder, which trickles down to their loved ones. It is not uncommon for loved ones to be the ones to call mental health professionals for help because they can see the deleterious effects of the hoarding, and feel the need to intervene because the hoarder cannot or will not accept that there is a problem.
If this is you, here are five steps you can take:
1) Educate yourself on hoarding. There are many websites and books available for loved ones to learn more about hoarding. Reputable websites include the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) Hoarding Center, which includes information about hoarding, community resources, how to help, and research articles. Another helpful option is the Children of Hoarders site—even if you are not the child of a hoarder, it, too, has a plethora of helpful resources.
Some recommended books for loved ones include:
Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring by Michael A. Tompkins and Tamara L. Hartl
Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding by Jessie Sholl
2) Obtain resources and support. Helping a loved one who hoards will take a lot of mental and physical energy. You won't be able to do it alone. Reach out to friends and family for support. Consider meeting with a mental health professional to make a plan for both how you are going to approach the hoarder, and to get the support you need during the process. Look online for local support groups or online support groups for loved ones. The IOCDF has a Facebook page with great information that is updated regularly, and OCDTribe is an online support community for both people who struggle with OCD and their loved ones.
3) Check your expectations. It would be great if your loved one would be happy and receptive to your ideas about how to solve their hoarding issues, but the reality is, this will likely be a long, difficult process. To loved ones, it may seem as "simple" as renting a Dumpster for the weekend and cleaning out the house. Remind yourself that patience is an integral part of the process, and there will be many steps forward and backward along the way. Be grateful for any small step your loved one takes forward—what seems like a baby step to you may be extraordinarily difficult and take tremendous courage for them. This problem didn't develop overnight, and it will not be resolved quickly, either.
4) Reach out to your loved one. This is a difficult step, but one that must be done in order for recovery to happen. Approach your loved one with compassion and understanding. Remember, it is likely that the person hoarding does not see or is unwilling to accept the problems their hoarding is causing. It may take several attempts before your loved one is willing to think about making the smallest change to their behavior. Be willing to compromise, but do not give up. Do not shame your loved one or make threats. Establishing trust is essential, as is—as I mentioned before—having realistic expectations about the process.
5) Support your loved one on the path to recovery. As your loved one goes through treatment (because working with a professional who is trained in treating hoarding is essential for recovery), they will have assignments to complete after each therapy session. Be a support person and cheerleader, celebrating the small steps and the big accomplishments, too. Let your loved one know that you are there to help, but also recognize this is their journey, and their battle to fight. Use your resources and support people to keep your efforts in check and ensure you are caring for both yourself and your hoarding loved one.
Author's note: If you are looking for a local therapist who specializes in hoarding disorder, please begin with the International OCD Foundation website at http://www.ocfoundation.org/FindHelp.aspx.