How to Help a Hoarder

You have to walk sideways through a maze of stacked books and newspapers to find your way to the living room, where there is barely room to sit down. The stacks cover windows and block hallways, so the space is dark, damp and dusty. Does this sound familiar? You can replace books and newspapers with any word, but if the items take up most of the house and even overflow into the kitchen or bathroom, you’re in the home of a hoarder.

It can be both alarming and upsetting to see someone live like this. If the hoarder is someone you are close to, it’s downright heartbreaking! You may have tried to talk to them about the problem, to no avail. In their mind, their hoarding is not a problem. They may even become defensive and tell you it’s none of your business. You know the problem needs to be solved – since the hoarder’s physical and emotional health is at risk  – but you don’t know how to go about helping them. If you’re looking for ways to help, read on.

How to Approach a Hoarder – Important Do’s and Don’ts

When you have determined that someone you know is indeed a hoarder, it’s important to be very careful and tactful about how you handle the situation. There are some important do’s and don’ts so you don’t make the situation worse than it is.

What To do:

  • Do listen. A life experience, loss, trauma or insecurity may have caused things to get to this point. Letting them talk will help build confidence and trust.
  • Do encourage them to get professional help. While we care about our loved ones, we aren’t mental health professionals. There are social workers and mental health care specialists who are experts in this area who can help them heal, recover and become functional again.
  • Do offer to help in any way you can, such as removing their belongings, but seek the help of a professional clean-up service if the clean-up is too overwhelming or there are biohazards.
  • Do be kind and empathetic, and get the help of others who are kind and empathetic as well.

What Not To Do:

  • Do not judge. There may be a tendency to judge someone with a hoarding disorder. Remember that it is a mental health disorder, not something the hoarder does on purpose. They need compassion and encouragement, not judgement.
  • Do not remove items from the hoarder’s home without their knowledge or permission. This will not only upset them, it will break their trust in you. It could also lead to other mental health problems such as anxiety attacks, depression, isolation  – even suicide.
  • Do not enable their behavior. Just as you wouldn’t buy alcohol for an alcoholic or drugs for a drug addict, don’t buy things your hoarder collects out of “love” for them. Show your love in other ways.
  • Do not clean up after them. This will only be a temporary solution. They need to understand and address the reasons for their hoarding and heal themselves. 
  • Do not expect a change to happen overnight. Even if you enlist the help of professionals, it will take time to undo the years – maybe even decades – of habitual hoarding. There may even be some setbacks, but don’t lose patience. 

With the combination of reliable knowledge, empathy, support and encouragement, and the assistance of qualified professionals, it is possible to help the hoarder in your life. Following these do’s and don’ts will help you help them begin their road to healing and safety. The sooner you start the process, the better!