What to do about a neighbour who hoards

Age Matters
25 February 2022
pile of items overflowing

We’ve all seen the shock headlines with the massive and costly cleanouts. The TV shows and mainstream media depict an extreme makeover approach to resolve the issue of a severely hoarded or cluttered home.

Or there is the Marie Kondo style of extreme decluttering with a minimalist approach to belongings.

But what happens when there is someone in our lives, a neighbour, friend or even a parent that has an ever-growing amount of belongings that is starting to feel out of control? This situation can leave many people feeling helpless, desperate to find someone else to sort out all the clutter and get the home back to ‘normal’.

The issue is that a hoarded home is rarely as simple as it appears on the surface. But that doesn’t make it impossible to help.

Below are five simple tips that anyone can adopt to make a real difference in the life of someone struggling with excess stuff.

  1. It’s not about the stuff

Importantly, when we enter a hoarded home we may be confronted by volumes of excess ‘junk.’ We see (and sometimes smell) an environment which can no longer be used as it was intended because the build-up of items is overflowing the space. People with hoarding behaviours are often blind to the risks they subject themselves, their loved ones, and others to. However, if we remember that what we see is often very tied up with what the individual is feeling, it can be the opening we need to begin unpacking the complex circumstances.

Your relationship should be with the person, your conversations can be guided by their emotions, and their willingness to address their situation needs to revolve around them as a person. Take the time to talk to them about themselves, what is going on in their lives now and in the past, and build a trusting relationship that considers them as a person first, and their belongings second. The golden rule is that clutter is just a symptom of the problem.

  1. Safety first

Sometimes the environment can start to become a safety hazard. Reducing the possibility of harm can be as simple as prioritising clear pathways, ensuring smoke alarms are working and addressing any food storage or hygiene issues that could contribute to illness. A safety approach centres about the person (not the stuff), ensuring they are safe and can continue to live well and safely in their own home. Even if someone is resisting help, we may be able to help by providing motivation or suggesting small goals.

  1. It takes a village

Just like the mantra about raising children, it takes a whole-of-community approach to truly improve instances of significantly hoarded homes. Don’t underestimate your opportunity to play a role in helping someone achieve their goals relating to their over cluttered home. While professional services, including mental health support, are incredibly important there is much benefit from playing a supportive role in a comprehensive plan towards decluttering and discarding. Just organising a regular time to visit can provide an external motivation for individuals struggling with their ‘collections’. If that visit is supportive and encouraging, it can make all the difference. You can also make suggestions about contacting key supports or services they may not have considered, encouraging them to proactively take control of their situation.

  1. Educate yourself to combat myths and stereotypes

There are some fantastic resources available online and in books. The Buried in Treasures book (Tolin, Frost, Steketee) is a great resource to develop your understanding of compulsive acquiring, saving and hoarding.

Helping someone who is hoarding may be unpleasant, might expose you do hazards and could be stressful. You need understand the risks you may be exposed to and decide the level of discomfort you are willing to accept.

It’s also really important to understand the difference between hoarding and collecting. The phrase hoarding is often used to describe any circumstances of excess belongings, however in reality if the belongings are generally well organised and considered to be interesting or valuable, it may in fact be a collection. Importantly if the belongings are not impacting daily living and there is some order to the clutter, then the environment should not be unfairly branded as hoarded.

If hoarding disorder is suspected, particularly if the individual is exhibiting extreme distress at the mention of decluttering or discarding, it is important to understand that Hoarding Disorder is usually associated with other mental health conditions. Some of these may be obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and social anxiety disorder. You can help by being aware of the correlation with mental health conditions and be supportive and encouraging of professional mental health support for the individual.

  1. Preserve dignity

Hoarding can affect anyone. Research has not shown any correlation between socio-economic status, education or if someone ‘grew up in the depression’.

It is also common for people to resist or refuse help. It may take several approaches and consistent offers before someone is ready for change. There is a lot we can do as good citizens by avoiding judgement and seeing the whole person, not just their stuff. Find other things to talk about to build a relationship and ensure that conversations about their safety is based on facts, not judgement. If you witness another person providing unhelpful commentary about a situation that is hurtful or judgemental, you can make a difference by advocating on behalf of the person and perhaps pointing out some of these key points.

If someone you know has specific goals relating to the condition of their home, such as clearing a space for someone to visit them, focus on the positive feelings that will result from achieving that goal. Shame-based motivators, even when well-meaning, are never helpful and can damage your relationship and prevent from being able to provide assistance.

In summary there are a lot of stakeholders who have an interest in the state of someone’s hoarded home. The person themselves may not be as motivated to change their circumstances as the people around them. It can take time for someone to adjust to the realisation their home is no longer serving a purpose that is helpful for them. As a neighbour, friend or family member you can play a key role in that journey and build a wonderful relationship along the way. Our experience is that people with hoarding behaviours have some of the most interesting stories, backgrounds and experiences. These stories are often very closely tied up with their belongings. Although their belongings may be getting in the way of them living their best lives, it can be a very enjoyable experience to help someone transcend their belongings and join them on the journey of discovering new things about themselves.

Age Matters is running a Hoarding Support Group for older people with hoarding behaviours. The group is a peer support program designed to help people understand their relationship with their belongings. More information can be found here.

For Illawarra residents who find themselves connected to someone living in Hoarding and Squalor, we also run a private Facebook group designed to connect and inform carers and supporters of individuals with hoarding behaviours.