Think you may know a hoarder? Many of us can name someone, or somebody in their life who has a tendency to collect a massive amount of random stuff in their home. This stuff is mostly an awful lot of everything that comes from the stores and the street skip bins.
Basically, just floor-to-ceiling piles of rubbish that can range from two-metres wide to six feet high. This can include shopping bags, mixed in with rotting food and cat urine. And rubbish like that doesn’t happen overnight. It becomes this big secret, a giant burden of shame and resentment. Perhaps, you don’t need to hold your breath on this one. You personally know someone who is a hoarder, and you know that person needs help.
Hoarding by the Numbers
Is hoarding a global concern? Yes, it is. There are over 14 million hoarders in the United States. In the United Kingdom there are over 1.2 million people afflicted by hoarding. With the current Australian population at just over 25 million people, a significant 2% of the total populace has a hoarding problem. That is over 482,600 people who are afflicted by hoarding (source: University of New South Wales’ School of Psychology on Radio National Australia). Hoarding can affect anyone from all socio-economic groups in Australia; there are hoarders who are extremely wealthy professionals, academics, successful people with careers, tradesmen, celebrity families and people with disabilities in the mix. Hoarding doesn’t discriminate.
What is Hoarding?
Hoarding is a psychiatric condition. Once lumped alongside obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), now with its notoriety in popular culture, medical and legal cases; the disorder has its own distinct category now. Hoarding is officially defined as a “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.”
Emotional Causes of Hoarding
For a hoarder, there is great distress associated with discarding accumulated possessions. People who have trouble parting with their stuff have often lost the basic insight on how grave their situation is. These people literally live in rubbish and refuse to see it.
But at the deeper level, hoarding is a complicated life issue. The onset of hoarding is often aligned with traumatic life events, such as:
- A death in the family
- A break-up
- A divorce or family separation
- Getting fired at work
- PTSD-related experiences such as military service, physical assault, childhood abuse
- Losing belongings in a house fire
- Onset of disability, illness or aging with mobility limitations
Hoarding Clean-ups Mandated by Council
Hoarders pose health and safety risks not just to themselves, but also to the general community. Children and animals are often the unfortunate victims living among hoarders. Councils have now taken a strict stance towards hoarding and squalor, due to deaths that have arisen in the past years. Such is the case with an elderly woman living with 488 cats, most of which were dead among her rubbish piles. The hoarder fire that razed a duplex in Sydney.
There’s also the unfortunate case of a young boy in Melbourne living with hoarder parents who died of an infected foot because he had stepped on an open can of tuna. Because of these cases, city councils are now trained in identifying hoarders and they are now prompted to take action when a hoarding case is reported in the community.
To avoid any more unwarranted loss of lives, forced clean-outs under a timeframe are imposed. This necessitates family members to mobilise quick and massive rubbish removals just to make sure their loved one doesn’t lose their home, get institutionalised or incur fines by the city council. Sometimes it’s more than that, family members remain hopeful the hoarder would finally be open to changing their behaviour and ways.
How to Help a Hoarder
Honestly, it’s hard to stay optimistic about a clean-up if you’re living with a hoarder- or if you are aware you are suffering as one. The idea of cleaning up all the rubbish out can test everyone’s mettle to the limit. For families suffering under the hoarding umbrella, there’s a toxic mixture of disgust, resentment, frustration, disbelief and anger, all at once. That aside, the biggest advice for family members before undertaking a hoarding rubbish removal is to be very patient and understanding of the hoarder.
So here are 10 tips on how to help a hoarder through a rubbish removal:
1. The first major move should be getting therapy.
Like any mental illness, hoarding should have a long term treatment plan addressed by a professional therapist, coupled if possible with a professional organiser who can facilitate clean-ups over a period of time. Therapy is important because it addresses the internal emotional issues and the trauma experienced by the hoarder while a professional organiser helps in the decision-making process of the hoarder, making sure the clean-up moves forward. Without therapy, all attempts to clean up the home will fail. The hoarder will only fall back into old habits or escalate the current hoarding situation with new rubbish piles.
2. Get talking.
As uncomfortable as it makes everyone in the family feel, you need to stage an intervention; you need to gently ease the hoarder to discuss the squalor issue. Frequent visits to the home to check in on them and to say ‘Hi!’ is a good start. Do not start a conversation with a hoarder in an aggressive or blaming manner. This will only escalate their denial and hoarding.
Often a hoarder suffers from ‘clutter blindness’. A term used to describe their amazing ability to consider the clutter as a normal way of living. The condition of the property is is seen by them as not being a problem. This is the worst kind of denial because clutter blindness enables the hoarder to live in filth, literally living in an environment littered in excrement and the stink of decomposing rotting things. Only when the person starts to openly talk about the hoarding as a problem, it is then a sign that they are ready for change and are open to being helped.
3. Reserve and delay judgement against the hoarder.
If they feel they are not judged, they can start reclaiming their lives. The hoarder can then start loving family members more than their stuff. If you can’t refrain from saying your thoughts out loud, get a therapist involved during your talks with the hoarder, do a therapy group session, so you can say all your honest feelings that the hoarder needs to hear as well.
Hoarding affects not just the hoarder but everyone within their living radius. A therapist can help everyone validate their feelings and address the issues brought about by the hoarding, without family members getting into each other’s throats or escalating the resentment into physical altercations. Unbelievably, hoarders will fight tooth and nail to keep their accumulated objects, even if these are unsanitary or dangerous objects such as rusty knives, used syringes, discarded nappies and dead pets.
4. Help the hoarder make decisions, do not make the decisions of throwing out things for them.
Cleaning a hoarder’s house has to be done on their own terms. Hoarders have this anxious need to know what item goes out the door and into the skip bin. A technique used by professional organisers is to take time to sort out the clutter with the hoarder’s permission, and they ask the hoarder if they are willing to let go of the said object. By empowering the hoarder to make that decision to let things go, the hoarder can acquire that behavioural pattern of slowly letting go of things on their own, without being prodded. Initially, it may be a slow or time-consuming process, even painstaking with tears shed here and there, but it’s one of the most effective ways to clean out the hoard and change the mindset of the hoarder to see rubbish for what it is.
5. Curb the shopping, halt the dumpster diving.
Buying impulsively is one of the main sources of the clutter. When the money starts to run out, hoarders can turn to scavenging through skip bins. The idea of bringing home someone else’s filth and rubbish into your own home is indeed appalling. But hoarders can’t help themselves if they are lost in this fog of acquiring, spending and collecting. This cycle of acquiring can be put under control through proper behavioural and cognitive therapies. You have to reinforce the idea with the hoarder that a day at the shopping mall doesn’t mean a day out for shopping. You can do other family activities such as dining out or watching a movie together, it doesn’t have to be all about shopping. Here you are helping the hoarder gain some self-control and curb the impulse to splurge.
6. Proactive positive reinforcement on every item thrown out.
A hoarder’s receptiveness to cleaning up fluctuates from day to day, but you can help the hoarder gain positive feelings about cleaning and you can build on that sense of positivity over time. Know that affirmative and constructive comments help rewire the brain networks. Consider it a gentle nudge to accept cleaning rubbish as a positive experience. Ask questions like – How do you feel about this item? Would you allow me to give it to charity, to someone who needs it more? Remember when you gave me this gift for Christmas? Maybe I can give it to someone for the holidays?
Questions like these help create more self-awareness about the hoarding and can help you gauge the emotional state of the hoarder about the object. Remember that these objects you are sorting through with them often represents who they were, who they once aspired to be and the possible futures they felt they needed these objects for. Resistance to throw these things away will happen constantly, often checking on each of the little things to toss out which can derail a clean-up. But with helpful comments, such as “I understand how difficult this is” and “I think you’re being brave right now letting go of this doll” are just small touches of support that matter a lot.
7. Seek legal counsel.
There are many legal issues as well when it comes to hoarding. A neighbour might have filed a court case, council may demand a site assessment with regards to the level of squalor, and the fire department might want to inspect the structural integrity of the house. Cooperate by all means, and tell the authorities that you are working on the problem with the hoarder and that your family has sought medical intervention as well with a therapist. Ask for deadline extensions if possible so as to not rush the clean-up and therapy.
If the hoarder is facing eviction or a number of serious legal cases such as property disputes, criminal charges such as neglect and animal cruelty, or high council fines get a lawyer involved for the hoarding relative. A hoarder will often take no action and ignore real world issues unless the authorities are banging on the door with the rubbish removalists. A forced clean-up by council, home demolition or forced eviction is often emotionally tragic for the hoarder; if possible, it should be the last remedy to a hoarding situation.
8. Do a thorough clean-up with the help of professionals.
Cleaning out a hoarder’s house is a massive operation. Anyone’s family, no matter how noble or willing, can’t do it alone. There’s just too much clutter to deal with.
There are four support systems in play during a clean-up – there’s the family, the therapist, the professional organiser, and the rubbish removalists. You need all the extra hands to get things done properly.
Rubbish clean-ups can be done two ways:
An emergency clean-up to appease the council deadline
A hoarder has no choice but to face the facts. They can either cooperate now with their family or let council do their own direct clean-up intervention which can mean a merciless no-fuss clean-up without their feelings in mind. Often the hoarder will choose to go with the help of family.
Since time is of the essence, a professional organiser can stage a systemic clean-up and rubbish removal which involves renting a warehouse or a large staging area. All the hoarder’s possessions will be loaded up, grouped into categories and taken to a warehouse for itemised sorting. The sorting will be done by the hoarder with a therapist involved, and the sorting will be done in a longer timeframe than the allotted council deadline.
Rubbish removalists and skip bin hire companies will come to collect the rubbish at the warehouse on a schedule. By transferring all the clutter, the hoarder’s house will be left empty and easy to clean. You can now scrub down and decontaminate the house. Pest control services and renovation services can come over to restore the home to an acceptable condition. With such a move, council can then make their site inspection of the home. This can save the family from any forced evictions.
A consistent schedule of home clean-ups with no council deadline
The family can arrange for daily or weekly clean-ups with the therapist and professional organiser present. Skip bin hire companies and rubbish removal services will come weekly to clear out the yard and the home. They will also leave a large skip bin and make it accessible for the hoarder to dispose of rubbish whenever they feel like it. Often the clean-up happens from room to room, making new living areas possible and accessible. This helps the hoarder see the difference in the home. Seeing this change can be transformational from the inside of the hoarder’s mind, helping them feel less gutted when things are thrown away. Gaining the ability to let things go can be a healing form of release and a cathartic experience for everyone.
9. Bring guests into the newly cleaned home.
Now you have successfully done the impossible which is cleaned up the home. Help the hoarder embrace the living areas that have emerged behind the piles of rubbish. People can actually sit down now and have a cup of tea. The household smell is no longer offensive and the air is remarkably fresh and breathable. Don’t hesitate a minute more, celebrate and invite people over.
Hoarders didn’t start out as hoarders; they once had social lives, but once their hoarding went out of control, they felt ashamed to invite people into their homes. Their emotional lives have suffered as a result, and the isolation from friends and family have exacerbated their hoarding problem. By introducing back a social circle of friends and neighbours, the hoarder can feel connected once more. It can be a great motivator for the hoarder to willingly keep the home clean, making the change and even consider rubbish removal as a permanent lifestyle habit.
10. Never forget to tell the hoarder that they are loved.
Slip-ups can happen; a hoarder can face an emotional roadblock and start piling up the rubbish again. That’s why checking up on them is crucial. Always be generous with affirmations of love and concern during visits. But be firm when reminding them of their hoarding past. Emphasise how the change has brought great joy to everyone who loves them, and how the anxiety associated with the clutter is gone now – isn’t it such a good feeling? Also remind them if they need help cleaning out the rubbish you are there for them at any time.
Get Support Now
Never hesitate to get the support you need locally. For anyone who believes that they may be living in a hoarding situation in Australia, you can take a collaborative approach between local council, mental health professionals, professional organisers and rubbish removal services. You can reach out to organisations and services for support such as NSW Fire Brigade and NSW Health. There are support groups like HRSU Australia (link to https://www.hsru.com.au ) and hoarding therapists (link to http://www.woodcockpsychology.com.au/hoarding-disorder/) Wholistic Professional Organizer (http://www.horder.com.au/) For thorough rubbish removal services for hoarding situations, call 1300 Rubbish Removal for a consult.
There is Always Hope
Cleaning up a hoarder’s house is not a lost cause. Though it’s a specific condition that can affect anyone at any point of the lives, hoarding can be successfully overturned. Many locals living in New South Wales have overcome hoarding. With these tips in mind, you can help yourself or a hoarder you know carry on a better life free of any filth and clutter.