Living with a person who over-collects or hoards is challenging. There is no doubt about that. You may find there is little, or no space left for you. The over-abundance of things may have started as a fun collection and morphed into collecting and saving everything. In fact, it may have changed from a sweet collection to a hoard so gradually that it was hard for you to notice until it wasn’t. The question before us now is how to stop enabling a hoarder.
Before I talk about strategies to help the person who is hoarding and to remediate the environment, I want to review the definition of a hoarding disorder.
What defines hoarding disorder?
Hoarding, according to the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses – Fifth Edition), is difficulty parting with objects – regardless of their use and value, cluttering of rooms so they can not be used as intended, and that discarding of objects causes distress.
Understanding that hoarding is a mental illness and not merely a lifestyle choice can go a long way toward building your patience as you seek to help the one with whom you live.
What does enabling a hoarder mean?
It means that you may be unintentionally enabling a hoarder when you turn a blind eye to the amount of stuff in the home. Another way people enable hoarding is when they avoid talking about the distress the accumulation of clutter is causing them.
Here are some things you can do to stop enabling a hoarder
There are some terrific books which can teach you more about hoarding disorder. These books can also give you strategies to help your loved one. I am listing them here so you can investigate them on your own and decide which to read first.
Buried in Treasures By David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee
Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, & Compulsive Acquiring by Michael A. Tompkins, Ph.D. and Tamara L. Hartl, Ph.D.
And there is also the book I co-authored with my friend and colleague, Jonda Beattie.
Filled-Up and Overflowing: what to do when life events, chronic disorganization, or hoarding go overboard by Diane N. Quintana, CPO-CD and Jonda S. Beattie
Our book has strategies and stories to illustrate that it is possible to clear out a hoard, but it takes time, patience, understanding, and a willingness to be completely non-judgmental.
Create a support system
If the person is willing to work on reducing the hoard, one of the best things you can do is create a support system. Find a therapist who specializes in treating people with hoarding disorder.
I find the best possible scenario is for the person who hoards to work with a therapist and a trained professional organizer. The therapist will work on the mental aspect of hoarding and the trained professional organizer will work on reducing the physical accumulation of stuff in the home.
Ask the person who is hoarding to decide where they would like to begin to reduce the hoard. Take a picture of that one spot. Understand that because it did not get that way overnight, it will take time to improve the way it functions and looks.
Work for short amounts of time in that one spot. It may feel like nothing is getting done or improving but every little thing that leaves the space is reason to celebrate.
Take another picture after 2 or 3 work sessions. Believe me. You will see a difference. What you don’t notice with the naked eye the camera will pick up. Celebrate the difference.
Offer practical help
If the person is open to letting you help, offer to work with them. Make the work sessions short and sweet. Before you start working together create some rules. Determine together what you may remove. Write the rules down and post them in the area in which you are working. Having the rules posted lets you remove things that have been agreed upon.
Avoid cleaning without consent
Always work with the person who has created the hoard. Never, ever work without them. If you do, they will wonder if you removed things they wanted to keep. Then, if they can’t find something they may rightly or wrongly accuse you of discarding it. Now you’ve lost their trust and you may not be invited to help again.
Use the LEAP strategy
Dr. Xavier Amador developed the LEAP strategy. It is a very powerful tool and one which can be used to stop enabling a hoarder.
LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner
I believe this is an important strategy to use in multiple situations.
When you work with someone who hoards they tend to want to talk about their collections of things. You can ask questions about the collections. Find out where they came from, if there is a plan to use them, and what they want to do next. Remember to ask from a place of genuine curiosity and leave judgment out of it.
Be understanding. It’s hard (extremely hard) for someone who has spent years (in some cases most of their life) collecting to agree to release their collections.
Find things you can agree on. This is where those rules come in handy. Can the person agree that magazines that are more than 1 year old can be recycled? If you come across something that is broken and cannot be repaired, can it be recycled or tossed?
Focus on the fact that you are there to support and help them create a healthier environment for the two of you. Let them understand that this is a collaborative effort, and they will be involved in the decision-making process.
There are many things to celebrate. Just the fact the person is working with you to reduce the hoard is reason to celebrate. Acknowledge and sincerely celebrate every time a bag of things leaves the area in which you are working. The bag doesn’t need to be a full garbage bag, it may be a small grocery store bag or a paper sack. Encourage the person to reward themselves with non-physical things like a mani/pedi, a dinner out, or an afternoon at the movies. It’s important for them to do something for themselves that makes them happy and that doesn’t involve bringing more things into the home.
Breaking the cycle of enabling a hoarder requires patience, understanding, and a collaborative approach. By educating yourself, setting boundaries, encouraging professional help, and providing emotional support, you can contribute to a healthier and more supportive environment for both the person who hoards and yourself. Remember that lasting change takes time, and consistent efforts can make a significant difference in the journey toward recovery.
Reach out to me to schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation if you are living with a person who hoards and want help from a trained professional organizer such as myself.
Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer® ,a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC and co-owner of Release●Repurpose●Reorganize, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. She specializes in residential and home-office organizing and in working with people affected by ADHD, Hoarding, and chronic disorganization.