Have you ever walked into a loved one’s home and been genuinely concerned by the state of it?
We’re not talking about a pile of unfolded washing or plates from last night’s dinner. We mean dirty chocolate wrappers from two months ago, or broken furniture blocking the hallway – piles and piles of mess that make each room a maze to navigate.
Even if there’s a Bless This Mess embroidery hanging in the living room, the result of hoarding can have serious dangers and affect lives in detrimental ways.
Seeing a loved one experience hardship from hoarding can be heartbreaking.
But you’re not stuck. And you can help.
We’ve spoken again to hoarding disorder experts Wendy Hanes and Angela Esnouf from Hoarding Home Solutions. They were kind enough to provide professional advice on how you can help someone overcome hoarding disorder.
Whether they’re a partner you live with, a family member or a close friend, there are actions you can take to provide hoarding help.
Let’s quickly break down what the disorder is.
Wendy and Angela explain that hoarding disorder is recognised as a behavioural mental health condition. It can be diagnosed and it can be treated. Most identifiably, the condition revolves around persistent difficulty parting with possessions.
Someone with hoarding disorder will accrue seemingly useless objects and be unwilling (or completely unable) to discard them. This mass accumulation eventually affects their home space and their day-to-day life.
For a more detailed look into the disorder, read through our previous article: The Psychology Behind Hoarding Disorder.
Can the disorder be cured?
The disorder is a mental health condition, so it can’t be cured – but it can be managed.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy is commonly used in its treatment,” Wendy and Angela explain. “Hoarding disorder commonly occurs together with other conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and bipolar disorder. Treatment and medication specific to the co-morbid disorder may be appropriate, but there is no medication specifically for hoarding disorder.”
Hoarding and Mental Illness: Hoarding can coincide with anxiety and depression, so it’s important to consider the full scope of someone’s wellbeing.
According to the International OCD Foundation, treatment for hoarding involves:
- Assessment of the person’s specific condition and its impact
- Encouragement in changing behaviours
- Healthy skills and habits training.
But treatment doesn’t always come from an office. Wendy and Angela say the most effective strategy for managing hoarding disorder is with a collaborative effort between an appropriate mental health professional and in-home service providers. The clinician will provide the cognitive behavioural therapy while the hands-on professional organiser will help manage the person’s clutter at home.
Hoarding and Your Relationships
The most devastating aspect of hoarding disorder is the power it can have over relationships.
Whether you’re a child with a hoarding parent, or your spouse is diagnosed with the condition, the effect can be catastrophic.
“Family breakdowns due to one person’s hoarding are common,” Wendy and Angela say. “Imagine growing up in a hoarded home; not only do you have the embarrassment of not being able to have friends over, it would be hard not to feel that your parent was choosing their belongings over you.”
Especially when loved ones aren’t aware of the condition or fully understand what it involves, the symptoms are easy to take personally and they can quickly lead to tension.
Wendy and Angela mentioned a client who had a hoarding parent: “Growing up, she had no room for her clothes in her bedroom because the wardrobe was filled with the clothing of deceased relatives that her mother refused to let go of. To her it was a clear message about her value in the family.”
There are hundreds of similar stories like this one that play out every year. But what can you do if it’s your family, your partner, or your close friend?
Starting the Conversation
If you notice signs that a loved one may be hoarding, you can start by checking the free fact sheet that Wendy and Angela have put together. Tips for Starting a Conversation About Hoarding explains how to best approach the subject in a non-confrontational, friendly way.
This is the first step in connecting with your loved one, explaining how it affects your relationship, and starting a new chapter in both your lives. It also opens up a new world of bigger conversations and treatments.
“Some people feel most comfortable speaking to a mental health professional. Others like group support, while some prefer hands-on help from a professional organiser. There is no right or wrong way to start to deal with a hoarding problem,” Wendy and Angela explain.
“The important thing is to engage the person at the level they are comfortable at.”
And that starts with that first conversation.
What Can I Do?
Learning how to help someone overcome hoarding disorder starts with research, but it requires so much more than knowing facts and healthy habits. Treating the disorder is a long process – and it’s this process that you can help with.
“Your loved one will need support and understanding, but also help in following through on decisions and actions,” Wendy and Angela say.
They also have a few pieces of advice on the actions you can take. Angela and Wendy suggest that you:
- Encourage your loved one to connect with the right professionals
- Discuss ways you can help with your loved one and don’t assume you know what’s best for them
- Never remove things without their knowledge, as this is the quickest way to lose trust
- Have an honest discussion about what support you’re able to provide, and what support they need
- Plan together with your loved one and their other support team members.
Hoarding habits are difficult to conquer and the condition can be deeply ingrained in someone’s behaviour. If they want to make a change in their life, even just the thought of knowing they have solid support can have a huge impact.
Even the greatest conquerors had trusted generals by their sides.
My partner is a hoarder. What can I do?
Wendy and Angela explain that in the life of a hoarder there will be people who:
- Try to help, but do more harm than good
- Enable the hoarding
- Criticise or give ultimatums.
Of course, if they’re the love of your life, you want to be the person who helps. Especially if you live with your partner, this is so important. You share the home, so you also share the result of hoarding. So, your behaviour and the support you provide is crucial to changing both your lives.
“To provide effective support, the most important thing a person can do is educate themselves about what hoarding is, as well as effective techniques for decluttering and managing acquiring,” Wendy and Angela say.
This is where online training like Hoarding Home Solutions courses can help. They provide valuable resources for clutter management and overcoming the effects of hoarding. But it will come down to the support network you two create and the strategies you set together.
My friend is a hoarder. What can I do?
Being a friend has many benefits. First of all, you probably don’t live with the person you want to support. This enables you to help from arm’s length.
“They can focus on their friend’s safety, ensuring they have a working smoke alarm, addressing fire and tripping hazards and maintaining a positive relationship in the knowledge that at the end of the day they can retreat to their own comfortable home,” explain Wendy and Angela.
The danger of filling a home with flammable items is real. A friend is able to give that outside perspective and provide encouragement whenever they meet.
What if they deny the condition?
Only a mental health professional can diagnose hoarding disorder. But how can you support someone who:
- Shows common hoarding symptoms
- Denies their behaviour relates to the disorder.
Well, if they’re not willing to speak to a professional, it’s best to start with the possibility of physical danger.
“We may not be able to stop a person hoarding, but we can initiate changes to keep them safe,” Angela and Wendy say.
“It’s easier and more effective to talk to someone about their safety than to say that you don’t agree with the way they’re living. One is based on facts, the other is steeped in judgement.”
An expert tip from Angela and Wendy: “It’s important to maintain a relationship outside of the hoarding. If every time you speak to a person, it’s about their problem, they will very soon find reasons not to speak to you.”
Overcoming hoarding tendencies is best accomplished with a strong support network. This will involve a community of professionals, trainers and you – their loved one. Find more resources by Wendy and Angela about hoarding disorder on their website, or read through our article: The Psychology Behind Hoarding Disorder.
Wendy Hanes is Australia’s only Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization (CPO-CD©) and assists countless Australians in organising their lives.
Angela Esnouf runs her business, Creating Order from Chaos, to help people organise their homes and lives.