8. Feb, 2016

How to help someone who is a hoarder

The NHS Choices website defines hoarding as a disorder whereby someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner. The items can be of little or no monetary value and usually result in unmanageable amounts of clutter.” Does this sound familiar? Do you have an older parent or relative whose home is full to bursting with ‘stuff’ they either won’t, or can’t, throw out and whose quality of life is affected by this? Then they may have a hoarding disorder. We have investigated hoarding disorder and can offer some very helpful tips on how you can help your older relatives to de–clutter their homes and their lives.

What is hoarding?

A certain amount of clutter and hoarding is normal. We all accumulate possessions as we move through life and it’s common to form sentimental attachments to some. If pushed, most people will confess to having a garage, spare room, shed, or various drawers and cupboards brimming with clutter.

However, whereas most people will have a clear out at some point, by giving it to charity, selling it, or simply taking it to the tip, some people just cannot bring themselves to part with any of their clutter, often convinced it still has some use or value. When this happens, the collection of possessions, newspapers and even bags of rubbish may begin to take up so much space that it affects their quality of life.

Hoarding often seems to be triggered by a life-changing event, such as bereavement, retirement, or other loss. Other hoarders may have grown up in a cluttered household, or have some other underlying condition, such as depression or anxiety.

Compulsive hoarding was officially recognised as a separate medical diagnosis in May 2013 and is thought to affect up to 3% of the population.

When does hoarding become a problem?

If hoarding is left untreated the habit can become worse until it becomes extremely chaotic and unmanageable. The definition of chronic hoarding is when rooms in the home become ‘unsuitable for their intended purpose’, i.e. too cluttered to live in.

Hoarding may make it difficult to move safely around the house, can pose a significant hygiene and health risk, prevent proper maintenance and heating and even pose a fire hazard.

All hoarders tend to avoid making decisions about throwing stuff away, because doing so often brings up overwhelming emotions. Paradoxically, hanging on to things may help them feel more in control of their lives.

Famous hoarders in the UK

The issue of extreme hoarding were brought to life in a memorable BBC TV documentary series programme called Life of Grime, which featured a Polish war veteran who lived in Haringey, North London. Edmund Trebus was in his eighties and was living alone in a small corner of his kitchen on the ground floor of his Victorian house, surrounded by piles of rubbish. The garden was so full of junk that he had to use ladders to get in and out of his house.

Eventually, the local council cleared 515 cubic yards of rubbish which he had accumulated after deeming the house unfit for human habitation. They found a 300-foot long rat-infested tunnel extending into his garden.

Another famous hoarder, Richard Wallace, featured in the Channel 4 documentary Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder. Mr Wallace, lives in Westcott, in Surrey. He began hoarding newspapers after his father died in 1976 and this got out of hand when his mother died in 2002.

Fortunately for Mr Wallace, his caring neighbour , Mr Andy Honey, has helped him begin to declutter.  Over 100 tonnes of collected ‘jumble’ has been removed from the house and garden. CBT therapy sessions are helping Mr Wallace to understand his condition a little better and have enabled him to reduce the amount of stuff he collects.

A marquee now holds a large portion of his newspaper and magazine collections and some of the rooms in the house can be entered. Mr Wallace has some space among the towers of newspapers in one bedroom where he sleeps in a chair.

How can the GP help someone with a hoarding disorder?

If you think a family member has an extreme hoarding disorder, you need to be very sensitive to their needs. Try talking to them about your concerns regarding their well-being and if possible, accompany them to see a GP.

This won’t be easy as hoarders do not readily admit they have a problem. However, the GP should be able to refer them to a local community mental health team and perhaps propose a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is a talking therapy that helps people to manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. CBT can be very helpful to get hoarders to begin the process of decluttering.  The charity OCD-UK may also be a useful starting point.

It’s important that the hoarder does not become over-anxious that people will enter the house and take things away. They need emotional support. With time, they should be empowered to sort through their hoard and start to discard items voluntarily.

How can you help a loved on to declutter?

Your older parent may not be an extreme hoarder, but they might still need some help to declutter. Our article Guide to downsizing for the elderly gives some useful tips and advice on helping your elderly parent declutter when moving to a smaller flat or care home.

In addition, you might find these tips helpful:

  • Focus on one area at a time (e.g. the kitchen, or living room).
  • Try to establish a routine and stick to it – say, 30 minutes a day.
  • Avoid simply moving items from one room to another. Decide what to keep, what to donate to charity, what to recycle, or what to throw away.
  • Pack up the items to throw away and get rid of them straight away – if possible, time this with the next dustbin
  • Have a box for items that seem to be difficult to part with and then review the contents again a few weeks later.
  • Focus on quality when choosing items to keep.
  • Resist the temptation to move things into storage, as this merely delays the decision-making and could be costly.

 What other help and support is available for hoarders?

Help for Hoarders is a useful website with good resources to help chronic hoarders and their families to cope with the issue, including self-help materials and a discussion forum for the sharing of experiences and ideas. Some useful tips can be found here.

We’ve teamed up with The Senior Moves Partnership to offer you an expert downsizing service. Call now on 0800 044 3904 and quote myageingparent

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Guide to downsizing for the elderly

NHS Choices website:  Hoarding

Help For Hoarders