How to: Help a Hoarder in the Family
Hoarding is not just being “messy” or “untidy.” It’s a serious mental disorder that leads sufferers to compulsively acquire and save items.
Hoarding behaviors can be both repulsive and intriguing as viewers discover when they watch A&E’s newest hit show Hoarders. On the show, the professional organizer teamed with a psychiatrist helps a hoarder clean out their space and begin to make those decisions necessary to curb hoarding behaviors. With hoarding and disorganization in general, it’s never about the stuff. It’s all about what’s going on in their heads about their stuff.
The home of a hoarder is problematic environment for children to grow up in. On the Hoarders show, some parents have lost custody of their children until they clean up their homes.
Currently, researchers have linked hoarding behaviors to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Drs. Randy O. Frost, David Tolin, and Gail Steketee have researched hoarders to discover how they tick and wrote the book Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding.
The most famous case of hoarding was the Collyer brothers, who died in their New York brownstone in 1947. One brother died after a tunnel of papers collapsed on him, and the other brother, who was blind, was unable to get help and died from malnutrition. In all, officials found about 130 tons of trash in their home.
Hoarding also poses fire risks. Not only can papers trigger a fire, firefighters are unable to get inside a house to rescue and search for homeowners.
Hoarding is a far cry from being “messy” or disorganized. Hoarders are unable to throw anything away, in some cases even trash. I once had a client who hyperventilated on me when we decided to throw away a paper copy of an online article.
Hoarding can manifest in children
Recognize OCD and hoarding behaviors in your nieces and nephews. I recently did a talk for parents, and one woman said her tween-age son, who already has been diagnosed with OCD, had begun hoarding type behaviors. He wanted to save the juice cartons the family used and other trash. To nip this behavior in the bud, the child needs counseling with someone who works with OCD and hoarders.
If your niece or nephew exhibits these kind of behaviors, you may need to talk to their parents about getting them help. If their parents are hoarders, you can encourage the kids to keep order in their own areas. Children of Hoarders offers resources and assistance for children of hoarders.
Watch for clues in your own family
Recognize the behaviors in your family members and other loved ones. My grandma always kept a neat house. When she went into a nursing home for Alzheimer’s, my parents cleaned out her house and discovered several signs her real self was slipping away. Grandma had carefully washed and kept so many yogurt containers that it took about four to five giant trash bags to haul them away. They found wadded up wrapping paper under her bed, and other clutter was hidden away behind cabinets and in closets. Outwardly, the house still looked neat as a pin, but once you dug into it, the secrets spilled out. Literally.
Take a look at your parents and relatives, especially those who are elderly. If their homes have gone from being neat and tidy to cluttered and messy, something’s going on. It could be unresolved grief from losing a loved one, depression and other mental illnesses, or compulsive shopping and acquisition. Many times, there are several factors at play.
If your loved ones have always kept things, look at their backgrounds. My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression and were trained to keep everything that could be of use, even if it was broken. My parents grew up with that mentality as well. When I moved out on my own, I realized I had saved a couple of butter tubs and jelly jars out of habit. I made a decision to throw them away. Nowadays, we can recycle these items and give them back to the Earth.
If you are in a relationship with someone who exhibits hoarding behaviors, it can be a frustrating experience. I’ve worked with many clients who have told me that their significant others are neat and dislike their desire and inclination to keep things.
In some cases, both people in a relationship have OCD issues, just on each end of the spectrum. If you have someone who is hyper-organized and freaks out when a book is shifted a centimeter, they’re going to think anyone other than themselves is a hoarder. In those kinds of situations, both partners could benefit from counseling.
If you are trying to help loved ones, remember no change can occur until the person is ready to change. Most of the time, it takes some sort of crisis for it to happen.
Are you a hoarder, Auntie?
Recognize the behaviors in yourself. If you, my dear Savvy Auntie, have issues with hoarding, it’s time to get some help. It’s not easy, but think about the example you’re setting for your nieces and nephews. If you are embarrassed to have people over, including your nieces and nephews, or if the parents don’t want their children to come over for safety reasons, you can get help.
The National Association of Professional Organizers and The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization have a list of organizers who specialize in hoarding and chronic disorganization and resources. It’s best to work with both an organizer and a therapist.
With time and professional help, hoarders can make significant changes in their lives.
For more information:
The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization: www.nsgcd.org
Children of Hoarders: www.childrenofhoarders.org
Buried in Treasures book: http://bit.ly/8qMvxB