During this past holiday season, a Charlotte man was killed in an apartment fire. Police described him as a hoarder and speculated that the amount of stuff in his apartment not only provided additional kindling for the electrical fire but may have kept him from making it out alive. A tragedy such as this often makes us wonder if there is anything we could have done to help or to have changed the outcome. Although we cannot alter the past, we might be able to make changes in our own lives to prevent similar devastation or support others who may need our help.
1) Identify there is a problem. The first step is to recognize when clutter has become excessive and a significant problem for ourselves or our loved ones. This is often difficult since acquiring and saving items can elicit positive feelings in the moment. However, when looking at the bigger picture, it is often clear that hoarders are not living the life they want to be living. Instead, they have found themselves stuck in a hoarding cycle and do not know how to get out. The following points can be considered when determining if clutter has become a more serious problem:
- Excessive acquisition and/or failure to discard a large number of objects - Difficulty financially, spatially, or organizationally handling the quantity of items
- Clutter prevents or seriously limits the use of living spaces
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- High risks including fire, falling, respiratory problems and health risks
- Cluttering, acquiring, or difficulty discarding causes significant impairment, distress, or poor quality of life
2) Recognize consequences if no changes are made. Typically we think of the reasons to keep all of our possessions rather than the reasons to make changes. However, hoarding can result in a variety of serious consequences:
- Difficulty finding important objects (keys, glasses, bills) creating more stress
- Problems performing basic activities (cooking, bathing, sleeping)
- Inability to maintain and repair home
- Significant financial debt
- Relationship conflict or isolation
- Eviction or children being removed from home
- Health risks, injury, fire hazard, or death
3) Remember you are not alone. Hoarding has been estimated to occur in 5% of the population or 15 million people in the US. So there are many people who struggle with similar issues. There are also many researchers and mental health professionals who have focused on finding ways to help hoarding individuals. So far, cognitive-behavioral therapy has shown to be the most effective treatment. Therapy can help to identify underlying beliefs and feelings related to hoarding, provide organizational and decision-making skills, and address any others issues such as anxiety, depression, or relationship problems.
4) Tips for family and friends of hoarders. One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that the individual who is struggling with hoarding needs to make his own arguments for change. We cannot force, threaten, persuade, or shame them into it. Also, we cannot do it for them. So unless the clutter is immediately life-threatening, the best we can do is to offer support and empathy. Instead of nagging or arguing, ask the individual how hoarding helps and hurts them, ask if their behaviors are consistent with their values and goals, and if are they living the life they want to be living. You can also emphasize the importance of spending time together rather than focusing on physical items or enabling hoarding behaviors. Lastly, share with the individual that help is out there. You can provide them with information about treatment as well as other resources such as professional organizers. Mostly importantly, we have to remember that change takes time. Hoarding does not go away overnight.