How Do You Recognize and Help When a Loved One Is Hoarding?

Stack of Newspapers For RecyclingIf you’ve ever watched the popular shows Hoarders: Family Secrets or Hoarding: Buried Alive, you’ve probably found yourself experiencing myriad feelings ranging from fascination, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, sadness, and, in some cases, even excitement at the end.

According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), hoarding is a compulsive disorder. It used to be categorized as a symptom of obsessive compulsion (OCD) or obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), but researchers found that not all people with hoarding behaviors experience OCD. The good news is the American Psychiatric Association has now designated hoarding as a specific diagnosis, which means finding a treatment provider who understands the complexities of hoarding behaviors will likely become easier. Additionally, this should help increase resources and available information for loved ones struggling to understand the condition.

What Is Hoarding?

Hoarding is the behavior of excessively collecting and saving items to the point it creates problems and dysfunction in all areas of life. Excessive collecting does not simply refer to messy or cluttered homes, but rather to the collection of items that are both useful and not useful to the collector. In these cases, excessive collecting creates chaos and danger wherein rotting trash and debris are sometimes among the items saved.

A diagnosis of hoarding may be rendered if criteria are met and if symptoms are clinically significant, which means functioning is impaired due to the excessive collecting and saving. For example, if a person with hoarding behaviors experiences relationship problems because family urges him or her to discard items not being used, this means the problem is clinically significant.

Why Does Someone Who Hoards Excessively Collect?

Generally speaking, there are two types of saving:

  • Instrumental saving
  • Sentimental saving

Instrumental saving is keeping objects that have a specific purpose, such as trash bags (eventually you’ll need bags for trash). Sentimental saving is saving objects that are extensions of us, such as pictures and mementos. For people with hoarding behaviors, there is no differentiation between instrumental and sentimental saving because all items have utility and all items are meaningful, making it difficult to discard them. People experiencing hoarding behaviors tend to obsessively worry about losing items that may be needed in the future.

The fear of losing anything develops into distorted beliefs about an object’s importance, regardless of its function. Hoarding behaviors come from a place of anxiety, where collecting helps neutralize it. Even if your loved one doesn’t experience OCD, he or she may be experiencing obsessive thoughts about being prepared for even the most unlikely of events.

What Can I Do for My Loved One Who Hoards?

Often, people with hoarding behaviors are unaware of the enormity of their issue. When people lack insight, they are less likely to seek treatment, and, in the case of hoarders, they may even be less likely to benefit from conventional talk therapy. This is why it’s important for loved ones, caring third parties, and even landlords to understand hoarding.

Your loved one exhibiting hoarding behaviors is likely unable to see the vast and far-reaching effects of his or her behavior, so don’t be afraid to make your concerns known—but in an appropriate way.

It’s important to note that interventions may not be well received despite your best intentions. However, it’s important to bring your concerns to your loved one’s awareness because, as we’ve established, they might not truly see how bad things have become. Remember, you can’t change the person’s behavior, which you’ve likely already figured out if you’ve had any previous interactions centered on his or her hoarding behaviors. If this is the case, all you can do is offer support. Refrain from insulting, criticizing, or demeaning, as it may lead to your loved one shutting down and pushing you away.

If you are seeking help for an immediate or extended family member, options to consider are individual, couples, or family therapy. Seek a therapist who specializes in hoarding to get the help you and your loved ones need. I encourage you to be honest about your concerns and don’t minimize the problem. Your loved one exhibiting hoarding behaviors is likely unable to see the vast and far-reaching effects of his or her behavior, so don’t be afraid to make your concerns known—but in an appropriate way.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Erica Zadakis, MFTC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Natasha

    August 17th, 2015 at 9:05 AM

    I have watched these shows and have to admit that they make me cringe when I do. But i have also noticed that these are people for whom you have to do so much more than simply go in and clean their houses. Yeah that might work for a little while but I would be positive that you would go back in just a few weeks and the trend would have started all over again.
    This is something that goes so much deeper then just needing to clean the house. These are people who need serious help for serious issues that they are living with.

  • Loche

    August 17th, 2015 at 3:05 PM

    Gosh, I don’t think that I would even know where to begin because it seriously freaks me out that they can live like that.
    I know that it isn’t their fault but the idea of even going into a house like that just gives me the heeby jeebys.

  • Ella

    August 18th, 2015 at 7:41 AM

    You may try and try to reason with people, but there is no breaking through when it comes to the hoarding problem. This is something that for most people will take extensive counseling, and long term counseling at that, to help get a grip on this.

  • Cassandra

    August 18th, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    Hoarding is not an inherent, self-contained disorder, but a response to life. It may be a pre-existing tendency, but whether it ever emerges, and to what extent, depends on the relationships and experiences a person has. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that most of those people wanting to help their hoarding “loved ones” are the source of the problem. My family members all make constant demands of me, and every time I give in (which is usually) I have to make compromises. Every compromise leads to me not attending to my own needs, and so, often leads to another box of stuff tucked away somewhere (and eventually there is nowhere left to tuck). The same family members who demand I dance attendance on them look down their noses at how cluttered my house is and think I should deal with my hoarding “problem.” Frankly, THEY are my problem.
    My advice to the loved ones of hoarders is this: ask them what they really want from life and whether there is something YOU can do to help them achieve it. There will be dozens of ways you can help other than relieving them of their stuff. Maybe get off their back, stop dropping off your kids for free babysitting, or expecting them to volunteer at church. IF their stuff is a problem (ie a danger to them or others), stop talking about “getting rid of it” and rent them a huge storage locker, help them set it up (with shelving or their excess furniture), and let them hoard their to their heart’s content where it does no harm (that will probably cost you less in the long term than repeated interventions). Stop JUDGING them. You might be surprised at how much they can correct on their own if you give them the mental space to do so.
    Hoarding is perhaps a bit like obesity. The first step is healthy acceptance, even if the weight is a clinical danger. THEN you encourage people to pursue health, not weight loss for its own sake. With hoarding, you should be helping the person to pursue a comfortable life and contentment first, and then let them address the “stuff” at the pace that suits them. You might be surprised to see that their vision for their home exceeds what you think can be accomplished, but if you are so busy shoving your vision down their throat that you never listen, how would you know?

  • Lawrence

    August 19th, 2015 at 1:12 PM

    I have a co worker who is like this, who is constantly saving what I think of as junk because, to him , you just never know when you might need to use it. His words, not mine. I think that there are times when I treat him unfairly because i see this as a big problem. We work in a small office space with very little storage and he wants to hold on to anything and everything that comes along, whereas I like to purge anything that will not be used the next day. We have conflicting styles which very much interferes with us being able to work as a team. I just wish that he would keep these tendencies at home if this is what it is.

  • Shelli

    August 20th, 2015 at 7:40 AM

    And what I wonder about is what you do for them when they don’t see this as a problem and they really don’t see a need to change? What happens then? You know that this is not normal behavior but this is the only normal that they know so they fail to see that there is an issue there.

  • Cassandra

    August 24th, 2015 at 2:29 PM

    The point of my commenting here was not to psychoanalyze me or the people who populate my life, much as we might all merit it or benefit :-) My point was merely that to relieve a hoarding problem, it may be most effective to look beyond the hoarding and hoarder at the other stresses they face. These may be beyond fixing – old loves lost, untimely deaths of dear ones, flouted ambitions or dreams – but even if they are, understanding them may arouse more understanding and a better choice of strategy in the mind of the people attempting to alter the hoarding behaviour.
    For the workplace hoarder, I’ll just say that the more pressure you put on your co-worker to throw things away, the more eagerly he will hoard. Give him space, give him time (or let him take stuff home), and stop providing pressure that he is compelled to push against. Focus on keeping things working, not on how they look, and give him an outlet if you can.

  • Lee

    August 25th, 2015 at 11:51 AM

    There needs to be more empathy for those who live with this. You know that no one REALLY wants to live like this but there is this need there that they are trying to fill and for some this is the only way that they know how.

  • Lilia

    May 24th, 2018 at 5:42 AM

    I had a personal friend who was a hoarder. I asked her why, and she said that she wasn’t a hoarder until after her bad diverse early in her life. She is remarried now, but she still has that habit. I helped clean out one of her rooms one time, but instead of throwing things away, we just put her clutter in bags and moved them to the living room. I love her, but I do not want to help with clean up again. I think I am going to get someone who is professional at clean up.

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