When Hoarding is a Problem: 4 Tips to Help Your Loved One

Hoarding is a devastating disorder that impacts many aspects of one’s life. Understand what hoarding disorder is and four tips to help your loved one.


You’ve probably seen shows on TV about hoarding but it’s one thing to watch it on TV and another thing to live it with a loved one. Hoarding can be a devastating disorder that disrupts many aspects of one’s life. If your loved one suffers from hoarding, these tips can help navigate the journey with input from someone who has lived it.

What is a hoarding disorder?

First, it’s important to note that hoarding isn’t the same as collecting as some people might think. Collecting is intentional and a collector typically has no issues with items coming and going which isn’t the case with a person who hoards.


According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), an individual with a hoarding disorder has, “persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions due to a perceived need to save the items. Attempts to part with possessions create considerable distress and lead to decisions to save them. The resulting clutter disrupts the ability to use living spaces.”


The APA goes on to cite that about 2.6% of the worldwide population has a hoarding disorder with rates higher in those over age 60 and those with other psychiatric diagnoses specifically anxiety and depression. The rates remain consistent no matter the country or culture and it occurs equally in men and women with behaviors typically starting early in life and increasing in severity as the person ages.

Amy’s story

Amy from Natick, Massachusetts1 had three hoarding family members; two grandparents and an aunt who all lived together under one roof. Her grandfather had a stroke and eventually needed hospice care but, due to her grandmother’s hoarding, he was never allowed back into their home due to her unwillingness to make space for him. Her aunt was also forced to leave for similar reasons due to health.


Each family member hoarded different things including food, clothing, sewing and craft supplies, books, VHS tapes, toiletries and more. Amy says, “There were some parts of the house that you had to walk through sideways and areas that were inaccessible or required hours of moving items to reach such as to access the laundry in the basement. The bathtub was full of stuff for over 10 years and they took sponge baths, washed their hair in the sink or showered after going to a fitness center.” At one point, in order to get an air conditioner into a bedroom, Amy and her father had to get it in from the outside through the window as there was no physical way to get it through the bedroom itself. It was a severe case of hoarding that took years to navigate.


One thing that helped the most were friends. Amy shares, “I found it very helpful to be open with my closest friends about the hoarding challenges I was encountering with my family members. When they offered to help, I accepted the help as long as my grandmother was willing and gave permission. Sometimes people think that hoarding is a small issue so I often needed to educate them about the seriousness of the situation and how quick fixes rarely work long-term. These friends and even other family members were a huge support and source of encouragement to me during this process.”


Amy and her mom provided caregiver support to her grandmother and assisted in helping donate items to useful places as her grandmother eventually realized she needed the hoarding of other family members addressed although, “she denied that her own hoarding was an issue.” Amy goes on to say, “I spent thousands of hours over 12 years helping make the house safer for my grandmother to live there. My mom's friends and my youngest brother and dad also helped out. Cleaning things out was very difficult because important items were mixed inside piles of unimportant items.”


The bottom line Amy stresses is that finding help and support is key as is keeping relationships intact as much as possible which doesn’t always happen in hoarding situations. Amy says, “Knowing that when your hoarding loved one is finally ready for help, you’ll still want to have a relationship with them.”

4 ways to help a loved one with a hoarding disorder

  • 1

    Examine family behaviors

    It’s not uncommon for a family to be involved in accommodating or enabling a loved with a hoarding struggle. This can take many forms like paying for a storage unit for the loved one to increase their hoard. Families want to help, but also don’t want to upset the loved one struggling, so these behaviors can often worsen the problem through avoidance. The International OCD Foundation recommends that family members ask themselves, “How do I change my routine, or what do I do differently, because of my loved one’s hoarding behavior?” If you are enabling your loved one, begin with small steps to slowly establish boundaries

  • 2

    Educate yourself

    Amy shared that one of the most important steps for her and her family was self-education. She shares, “Becoming educated from hoarding experts helped enormously specifically interactions with my family members by minimizing confrontations that did not lead to change. While we disagreed on practically everything related to my grandmother’s hoarding, we were able to find common ground on other topics for conversation.”

  • 3

    Call for help especially if safety is at risk

    Hoarding isn’t just a threat to mental and emotional health, it can also pose a serious health and safety risk. According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, hoarding can be a risk to personal safety, harm other residents of the home (including animals) and can often lead to homelessness if the dwelling is condemned. They list the following specific concerns:

    • Personal safety: Blocked exits or heating vents pose fire hazards as can the excess weight to the structure of the dwelling. If dangerous or flammable items are part of the hoard that can be extremely dangerous not only to the resident but neighbors as well.
    • Health Problems: A huge concern are falls and accidents and the inability of emergency personnel to enter or remove an ill person. Clutter, garbage, animal or human feces and resulting mold or infestation can also cause respiratory and other health problems especially for disabled or residents with immunocompromised conditions. Ammonia levels from accumulations of urine and feces can easily exceed maximum occupational exposure limits and can be harmful to persons with cardiac or respiratory dysfunction.

    If your loved one is at risk, It's OK to call adult protective services for sanitation or other issues that threaten their safety. Amy shares, “It's not your fault that your relative may see little or nothing wrong with their situation when you know it is a major concern and I encourage people to call when it’s needed.”

    It goes without saying that if you or your loved one needs urgent psychiatric care, is suicidal and/or are a danger to yourself or others, please call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room immediately.

  • 4

    Seek treatment

    There are several treatment options for people with hoarding issues. McLean Hospital in Massachusetts is a renowned psychiatric facility and lists several treatments for hoarding disorder. For the full list, please check out their site here, below are a couple of options from their website:

    • Cognitive Behavior Therapy: According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the most well-studied method for treating hoarding disorder. CBT focuses on dealing with the thoughts and emotions that lead to hoarding behavior.
    • Motivational Interviewing: According to the International OCD Foundation, motivational interviewing> involves exploring any uncertainty a person may have about acknowledging and changing hoarding behavior while tapping into their motivation to change using small steps forward.

    Know that you’re not alone
    Many people face the difficult challenge of hoarding and often think they are alone. The statistics listed above show that to be untrue. The hoarding was not created overnight and do not try to insist your relative fix it in a weekend, week or even a month. Seek help and find support!

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