Dealing with hoarding is difficult for everyone involved. If a friend or loved one has started to hoard belongings in their home, they may be unwilling to accept they have a problem.
As their possessions begin taking over their life and making their living area unsafe, family, friends, or public authorities may need to intervene. This delicate situation requires sensitive treatment and the right approach to avoid causing more harm than good.
Many people have clutter in their homes and hang on to possessions longer than necessary. However, sometimes that sentimental attachment to an old toy or item of clothing can get out of control. Suddenly everything seems important and worth keeping, and the mess builds from there.
Read on as we explore what hoarding is, and how you can help if you find yourself cleaning up a hoarder.
What is Hoarding?
Hoarding is a clinically recognized mental health condition. The Mayo Clinic defines hoarding disorder as the persistent difficulty of discarding or eliminating possessions. A person afflicted with hoarding disorder experiences significant, even debilitating, distress at the thought of having to part with their belongings.
As a result of hoarding disorder, the resident accumulates an excessive amount of items. Over time, the sheer volume of these items affects and ultimately eliminates the livable space in a residence. At the more severe levels of hoarding, the accumulation of items (or animals) can cause a health and safety crisis, as well.
Clutter versus Hoarding
While excess clutter can exist in the early stages of hoarding, it does not necessarily indicate a huge problem. Specifically, a person with hoarding issues retains harmful items that eventually create a toxic environment.
However, people with clutter in their homes typically store accumulated items in the basement or attic, where the objects have little impact on everyday household functioning. The excess items may be unnecessary, but they aren’t impeding normal living standards.
The Stages of Hoarding
Did you know that there are defined levels of hoarding? According to The Institue for Challenging Disorganization, there is a scale you can use to evaluate hoarding situations.
At this stage, homes are often considered heavily cluttered rather than symptomatic of hoarding. All rooms, windows, doors, and areas are passable and the house is still clean and safe.
This is the stage where possessions are starting to take over the home. One or two rooms might be difficult to navigate, and there may be bad odors present. For example, mildew may be observed in the kitchen and bathroom, or pet waste may be present. One exit (door or window) may be unusable.
Progressing through to this stage means only one bedroom and/or bathroom is usable, and there is a limited living area. Dust and spoiled food have accumulated and the home has a strong odor. Clutter may be visible from outside the home now.
This stage is where things truly become a public health issue. Infestations of fleas and lice may be present, along with sewage backup and other unsafe conditions. Rotten food and pet damage are common.
This is the most severe level of hoarding. The home may have rodent infestations, and the kitchen and bathroom are unusable, leading to the accumulation of human and pet excrement. Utility services might not be functional. Many areas of the home are completely inaccessible. This level involves extreme clutter and animals that pose a risk to people due to the seriously unsanitary conditions and biohazards.
How to Help Cleanup
First, you will need to ease into the declutter process. That means starting with communication with the person who has been hoarding. A gentle, non-judgmental approach is best. Once your friend or relative is not feeling defensive but is open to change, you can move into planning.
Suggest multifaceted assistance to help them address their issues. In reality, a hoarder needs help in two general areas. First, he or she needs hoarding treatment, meaning professional therapy or counseling. This will address underlying issues and prevent the problem from recurring. Second, an individual in this position needs practical assistance to aid in decluttering and eliminating the mess.
Once all parties involved have agreed that it’s time to start cleaning the home, you’ll need to create an action plan. Develop this plan by working with your loved one to draft a strategy they approve of and are ready to attempt. The more they buy into the process, the smoother it will be and the likelier you are to achieve success.
What Not to Do
There are a few things that can make resolving a hoarding situation more difficult. First, don’t blame the friend or relative you are assisting. Hoarding cleanup can resolve the mess, but the underlying issues that led to the hoarding should be addressed by a professional with experience counseling people with hoarding disorder.
Second, if at all possible, don’t resolve the hoarding situation without input from the resident. If they can be involved with making some decisions about items to keep (within reason), it may be a less upsetting experience.
And the biggest mistake: Don't hesitate to obtain professional assistance with the cleanup. A professional hoarding cleanup company will be trained to handle even the grossest of hoarding messes. Their staff will have the appropriate equipment and protective gear to address potentially hazardous conditions.
For example, if you are in a hoarding situation, professionals can more quickly remove and dispose of unwanted and unsafe items. They can also sanitize and organize those items you or your loved one wish to keep. Importantly, professionals will do a better job ridding areas of odors and bacteria that have built up, as well as remove and dispose of medical and hazardous waste.
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