Hoarding: How to Help a Loved One Declutter

The issue of hoarding has recently gathered a great deal of attention, particularly due to news reports and popular television shows.  However, hoarding is not a new or a small problem. The problem of hoarding has been documented since the turn of the century and is thought to significantly affect nearly 15 million Americans, many of them elderly. A great article recently appeared in the Boston Hearald dealing with the clinical aspects of Hoarding.  Unfortunately, research has been lacking in this area – until now.

On July 14, 2010, a Bellingham, Massachusetts couple and their dog were found dead in their home.  The ultimate factor in their deaths: hoarding.  Authorities deduced that 75-year-old Richard Lamphere tripped on a pile of trash, fell on top of his wife, 62-year-old Susan Abraham and one of their dogs.  Lamphere died instantly from head injuries; Abraham was severely injured in the fall and died later from her wounds.  Police confirmed that the couple were hoarders.  They had trash and belongings piled everywhere inside their home.  The conditions were uninhabitable and clearly unsafe. For the full story, see this article.

When assessing the severity of a loved one’s hoarding situation, several questions are important to remember:

  • Can the occupant access doors in case of an emergency?
  • Does he have access to the kitchen to prepare and store food?
  • Can he access the bathroom facilities? Can the bathtub/shower be utilized?
  • Can the resident safely reach their bed or have they made other sleeping arrangements?
  • Are the home’s mechanical systems in working order (electrical, plumbing, heating)?
  • Are pets being cared for?
  • What health hazards are present (mold, decaying food, bodily waste, etc.)

If the basic needs of an occupant cannot be met, then it is time to consider intervention.

The difficulty with trying to help a hoarder is that most of them do not seek or want any “help”.  In fact, hoarders typically do not comprehend that they actually have a problem.  Thus, attempts to “clean out” or assist a loved one in “tidying up” his or her home should be done with care and patience.  And, although perhaps difficult, refrain from making judgments.

Tips to aiding someone who hoards include encouraging them and helping them establish new relationships.  Gently remind them that their grandchildren will be able to come and visit if they clean their house.  Perhaps it is time to participate in a local community activity for seniors.  If they are busy with other activities or plans, then getting rid of “stuff” may seem less consequential to them.  Many local companies specialize in professional, home organziation and cleanouts. Additionally, you may look into a hiring a certified home maker a few hours a week to keep up with housework and tackle clutter habits.

As a last resort, do not be afraid to contact the authorities or professional help.  Let someone else be the “bad guy”.  The story of a local hoarder who has made progress over the years can be found here.

Finally, a temporary or limited Guardianship may be necessary, at least until improvements can be made for the individual’s overall safety.   For more information and advice contact your local Elder Services or area Agency/Council on Aging.

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