Ask Unclutterer: My mother may be a hoarder

Reader Anonymous submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am hoping that you can give my brother and I some advice. Our mom is getting worse each year and refuses to believe she has a problem. In addition to her bringing other people’s garbage into the house, she also has a number of cats who use the house as one large litter box. When my brother and I attempt to clean, she yells and screams, and takes the rubbish back in when we put it out for the garbage truck. Unless we physically rent a truck to take it to the dump ourselves, it never leaves the house. We are so worried because it’s getting worse and she is approaching 70 and are at our wit’s end. She won’t go to counseling and when we clean anything it just gets disgusting again. There is food rotting as she doesn’t have a working fridge anymore and when she buys food she forgets about it and it gets compacted with stuff she puts on top of it. The piles of garbage are growing and we can barely get the front door open now. We have threatened not to come and visit and she said fine don’t. Nothing seems to work or get through to her. What can we do as we don’t want to see her die in this. Please, can you help us? Please don’t publish my name.

Only a doctor can give an official diagnosis as someone being a hoarder, but, since your mother is refusing to seek treatment at this point, that diagnosis is going to be difficult to acquire. I think that you will be okay if you function under the assumption that she is one, however, as it definitely won’t hurt her or you if you do.

Hoarding is a psychological illness. Your mother is not a bad person or a bad homemaker, she’s suffering from a mental health condition similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder or clinical depression. As much as she doesn’t want treatment for her condition, she desperately needs it. You and your brother can clean her house a million times, but it will always return to its current state if she does not get the medical care she needs. Cleaning her house against her will might also lead to her cutting off communication with you — and that is not something you want to happen. Keeping the lines open with your mother is extremely important.

Start by learning as much as you can about hoarding. There are many resources available to those who love and care about people who suffer from this condition. The Children of Hoarders website may be specifically helpful to you, and I recommend checking out their resources section.

Unless you believe your mother is endangering herself or others, you cannot force help upon her or commit her against her will to a mental health facility. Nagging, negative and judgmental statements, and disrespecting her stuff will only exacerbate her hoarding behavior. Learn as much as you can about her condition, be supportive and encouraging, and find non-threatening ways to encourage her to seek help. Best case scenario: She decides to seek treatment and finds a healthy way to live with her condition in a safe home environment.

Thank you, Anonymous, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. My thoughts are with you and your family. It is admirable that you and your brother are worried and care so much about your mother.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

27 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: My mother may be a hoarder”

  1. posted by Charity on

    I would just like to give a word of support, empathy, and advice for Anonymous.

    I am my grandmother’s power of attorney and main support. She did many of the things that Anonymous is describing. It broke my heart and I cannot even tell you how many weekends I spent in IN (I live in IL) cleaning her apartment. Unfortunately, it was a lifetime condition for her…she once filled up an entire 3,000 sq foot house! She was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and as such is in a wonderful living facility now and happy there. But it took a fall and surgery for a broken shoulder to finally get her there.

    I encourage Anonymous to get the help she and her mother needs. It’s hard but doable. Letting animals live in that condition is also animal abuse and the authorities could be called in by her neighbors or the like. I am not advocating the authorities get involved yet, but I am sure her neighbors are aware of the situation and alarmed too. Again Anonymous, I wish you the best of luck and perseverance in this hard situation.

  2. posted by Fred E. on

    I didn’t have to read beyond “bringing other people’s garbage into the house” to see that she has a hoarding problem but I have nothing to add to the advice in the original post except this:
    Since you can’t get her to seek help voluntarily the only other option is to wait until she is menace to herself or others and take action which will unfortunately make her angry at the person who does it. Pick someone for her to blame that can handle it best and is willing to do so.

    Also think about different avenues and seek the best one, such as a local government or non-profit agency for the aged vs. the health department or sanitation department vs. the fire department.

    A social worker at a government agency, hospital or nursing home that deals with situations like this can give advice. When I worked in a hospital the home nursing company or hospital social worker frequently had to involve adult protective services in doing a clean-out of a patient’s home to ensure a safe environment for discharge but of course that doesn’t solve the long-term issues.

    Also watch some of those hoarders shows (they are available as torrents) to see what you are really up against, especially the elderly sufferers, maybe other posters can recommend specific episodes.

    Good luck!

  3. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    This book may help.

    It’s geared toward the family and friends of hoarders. I liked how it explained a lot of how hoarders process information differently than normal people, and how that can be used to ameliorate the issues. It’s nonjudgmental, too.

  4. posted by DownToEarth on

    I think you really need to talk to a doctor about this. I’m sorry to say that she might have more than a hoarding problem. Possibly the situation has gotten slowly worst and crept up on you, making you not realize how bad it is.

    If she’s not eating properly, she could be endangering herself. If she’s a smoker, she might also be a fire hazard for herself and others.

    Once treated (possibly even against her will), all the dangerous behaviors might go away and she could be declared independent once again. It does not have to be permanent.

    I feel for you.
    Best of luck.

  5. posted by Beverly Wade on

    You might be interested in a new information website on compulsive hoarding – It is a comprehensive resource of up-to-date information about compulsive hoarding, its diagnosis, research, treatment and the available support. You’ll also find FAQs, tests and the latest views on this disabling illness.

    As declutterers in the UK, Beverly Wade and Chrystine Bennett of Cluttergone have worked with over 200 individual declutter clients, some of whom are hoarders. They have developed the website for sufferers of compulsive hoarding, their friends, families and anyone with an interest in the subject.

    We hope you find the site useful.

  6. posted by Sooz on

    Some cities have “adult protective services” which can be called in for situations like this.

    Also, if your mom lives in her own house, you can sometimes get the Health Department involved as well; in some locations they have the power to order a house cleaned out or can declare it unfit for human habitation until it is cleaned.

    My heart goes out to you, Anonymous, because this is a very difficult situation.

  7. posted by Sylvia on

    THANK YOU for pointing to the valuable available resources for Children of Hoarders.
    I just started looking at it and already have found some great tips that will help with my issues.
    Thanks for a great website and all you do.

  8. posted by georgetownsandi on

    You can get a competency hearing that is held in state probate court to determine if a person is able to handle their own affairs. All aspects of the person’s life are taken into account, whether they are capable of handling finances, health care, daily living issues. The person being evaluated has the right to proper legal representation and the right to speak in their own defense. All persons with reasons to be involved (such as family members) may address the court. If the person is unable to obtain legal counsel the court will appoint an ad litem until a ruling is made. If the person is found incompetent an adult guardian/conservator will be appointed. The court prefers to appoint a spouse or close relative, but considers the request of any qualified adult. A guardian/conservator is answerable to the court concerning all aspects of the incompetent person’s affairs.

    People can and do die from bad food or infections from garbage in a home or being crushed by “stuff” — while it’s great to help people understand their behavior, sometimes one can’t wait.

  9. posted by Cat on

    I am not sure if you want to go this way but another agency to contact would be SPCA or similar animal protection group. It sounds as if the cats may be in a very bad situation. A woman near where I live was in a similar situation with many cats using the whole house as a litterbox, and ultimately they removed her from the situation (I believe she was institutionalized but I am not sure). When they did, they found many dead cats and kittens in the house as the woman in question could not adequately care for all of them. Calling in these authorities is a radical step to be sure, as she may be cited for animal cruelty. So it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

  10. posted by Sarah P on

    I was just coming in here to suggest what some other commenters did – definitely check with your local health department if you haven’t already. They may be a good resource that can help assess the problem and get you to the appropriate local folks who are best equipped to help you and your Mom. Best of luck.

  11. posted by Sandra on

    I think the idea of a competency hearing is a really good one. Even more immediately, I’d contact the Humane Society or similar agency about the cats, and consult with a psychiatrist, ideally one that specializes in these issues, for advice. I can’t imagine she’d get a criminal citation about the animals since she’s clearly not competent about the situation.

    It’s very difficult when aging parents become incompetent, but their adult children have to take action to protect them, just like you would with a child. You can’t just leave them to follow their own wishes. It sounds like there may be some dementia here.

    The responsible adult thing to do here involves being tough-minded about it. Consulting with experts can help you do it in the best way possible, but it has to be done. It may well require getting power of attorney, but she should probably be in a care facility. I worked to get my mother into a care facility as soon as I was aware there were safety issues for her, and was very glad I did. She was willing to do so, fortunately, but I had to be the one to set it in motion.

    I’ve been struggling with a friend whose mother kept driving until she was reported to the DMV, and who lost several teeth because she’d stopped brushing. My friend said “she has to drive because of where she lives” and “maybe this will help her realize that brushing her teeth is important.” The mother actually needs someone else who will ensure, every day, that her teeth get brushed. People can get to the point where they’re no longer capable of treating themselves responsibly.

    Good luck. Post back and tell us how you’re doing.

  12. posted by dougR on

    This is just me talking, obviously, but before I’d resort to competency hearings and all that that would entail, I’d make sure there isn’t some underlying medical issue and/or onset of dementia or something like that.

    People, especially the elderly, go through mood changes because of dietary issues and/or too much or too little of a certain medication. If you’re not observing your mother 24/7, you don’t know what she’s eating or not eating, and there might be a surprise there if you found out.

    Older people also get depressed. I’m not qualified to say whether your mother’s behavior patterns are a manifestation of that or not, but a family doctor and/or gerontologist could, and getting her to a doc might be an easier sell than getting her to a counselor. I’m not a doc, but this sounds like more than a behavioral issue.

    You might also look into support groups, either for children of clutterers (I assume there are such things) or dementia-related (sorry) groups. You really need people around you who’ve been there/done that.

    Good luck and yeah, do post back & update.

  13. posted by Richard | on

    I live with someone who is a huge hoarder but fortunately she is seeing the light recently. IT’s a reflection of a hoarding mental state where she is scared of losing everything but lets not get too pop psychology in here.

  14. posted by Ronique Gibson on

    My father was a hoarder. We (My mother and I) didn’t realize his problem because he lived in another state. It wasn’t until he became ill and had to be admitted to the hospital, did we come to his home. Piles and piles of clothes, food, electronics mixed with medicine, you name it, it was in the piles. There was only a path to walk through the house from front to back. Fortunately he was out of the house, and we hired a haul away junk company for much of it. Then donated the usable things to Salvation Army. After a long weekend of clean up, we sought advice of a therapist. He concluded that my father was mentally depressed and would need to start treatment and therapy. After a few years, it helped, but it was a slow, emotional process. You’re not alone.

  15. posted by Leslie on

    It sounds like early stage dementia. Get help. She clearly cannot take care of herself. I hate to say it, but it sounds like you and your brother are in denial if you are so worried about intervening that you let her live amidst cat excrement.

  16. posted by Vanessa on

    I just want to add that both obsessive compulsive disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder (which aren’t the same thing) are hard to overcome, even when the afflicted is aware of their disorder and actively seeking help. Hoarding is especially hard to overcome. Since the woman in question doesn’t even think she has a problem, the last thing you want to do is keep forcing her to discard her “safety blanket” of stuff. The stuff isn’t the problem—it’s a symptom of a much deeper problem. Since she appears to be a danger to herself and her cats, I would go ahead and contact the appropriate authorities/resources (from the links in the comments above) to see what they advise.

  17. posted by Chris on

    After my father died a few years ago, I moved my mother out of the family home. They were both hoarders and it was the thing I was dreading for the last 10-15 years. Because it was up to me to sort it all out. Vanessa’s right, the stuff is like a safety blanket to them. There was nothing I could do to, or advice that I could give that could make a difference. It was only when we moved my mother out, that we could sort it out. We ended up getting a house clearance company in, and sold off the stuff we could. It took a whole week to do, working dawn till dusk, but we got there in the end. My mother is now much happier in her small apartment. Looking back on the hoarding thing, you can see it is a psychological state, a state of fear.

  18. posted by Keter on

    I grew up in a hoarding household…both my grandmother and mother were hoarders. Later, I found myself in a relationship with a man who started hoarding when he turned 30, including animal hoarding, which was the worst because all of the responsibility for caring for the animals fell on me and I found that no amount of helping helped, it just enabled him to collect more animals and make the situation progressively worse. My experiences taught me that hoarding is associated with other mental issues and may be related to drugs (legal or illegal) as either a causal factor or a concurrent symptom to the underlying disorder. If the hoarding tendency is new for your mother (for example, if she didn’t hoard as you were growing up or after you left home), I would suspect that she has another issue that is manifesting as hoarding, such as Alzheimer’s. The apparently aggressive reactions she has and the tendency to forget about food also tends to point to some form of dementia. So getting a proper diagnosis of possible drug reactions and organic problems is important.

    I noticed that you didn’t mention your father, so I would assume she is living alone now. Some people cannot be motivated to clean unless they feel responsible to someone else to do so. I was getting the strong sense as I was reading this that she has NO social relationships other than immediate family, and the hoarding *might* be a way to get more attention (my mother did this). Social isolation can cause or deepen depression and remove motivation for adequate self-care. If she is sufficiently healthy to go out and able to be sociable with others, she might benefit from regular interaction in volunteer or senior adult programs, where she may be able to reconnect socially. If her appearance has deteriorated and is making her reluctant to be social, you might be able to encourage her with some new clothes and a fresh hairstyle. Your mother’s community will have a senior ombudsman of some sort that can help you find resources to overcome limitations such as transportation and volunteers who can stop by and check in on her regularly and provide some social interaction.

    Blessings to your family that you may have strength through this difficult time and find a good solution soon.

  19. posted by Sandra on

    One other thought – you may be able to find a geriatric care specialist/consultant who could do a needs assessment. I’d try the local Alzheimer’s association for a referral.

  20. posted by Jill on

    My thoughts are with you. I hope your mother gets the help she needs and deserves.

  21. posted by catherine on

    This has been helpful! I have a family member with what I would describe as “creeping hoarding,” the STUFF is kept mostly at bay, not a health hazard. However, the way she feels about the STUFF is hoarderesque. I don’t know what can be done for someone who is at the funcioning level of hoarding. It’s somewhat like a functioning alcoholic, the problem is mostly invisible, and they are now only quietly hurting themselves.

  22. posted by DebraC on

    Hope you manage to work through your hoarding problem. There are certainly some major signs of dysfunction which you have alluded to. Loving support is always required in these difficult situations.

  23. posted by Sarah on

    Wow i feel very similar about my parents but they have a lot of stuff, thankfully no garbage though. Did someone call that creeping hoarding?? I never knew there was a name for it. I describe it to people as those shows like clean house and clean sweep where they have way too much stuff. They both blame each other and nothing gets done. I hate going to visit because I have terrible allergies and since they haven’t thrown anything away in 10 years there is a lot of dust.
    I also would like advice- my mother gets extremely angry and makes excuses about working too much and not having the time to clean whenever I bring it up. My dad blames my mom because most of it is her but he has his fair share. I am keeping the peace since my wedding is coming up but I can’t imagine bringing grandchildren over when there is crap everywhere. They know it’s bad but they don’t make any real progress getting rid of anything!

  24. posted by Sandra on

    For Sarah: Can your parents afford a cleaning service? If they had housecleaners come in every two weeks or so, it could at least help with the dust and maybe inspire them to pick up a little. It depends on how much they’re resistant to getting rid of stuff.

    When I had major clutter problems due to health issues a few years ago, getting picked up somewhat for my cleaners helped keep things at bay somewhat. I also hired one of them for an afternoon of deeper decluttering.

  25. posted by Mike on

    Just wanted to add my kudos to this blog’s treatment of hoarding as the medical disorder that it is, rather than stigmatizing it as the behavior of inferior persons as it is more often labeled.

  26. posted by mstreemn on

    I went through a similar situation, as so many others have, with a family member who is a hoarder. Firstly she needs a mental health evaluation. My family member has depression and OCD. A job loss triggered a deep depression and spiraled her previously level one/two hoarding to full blown level 5+++. After she was being treated (several sessions with a therapist and medication) we(and a few very brave friends; Wear protective clothing and MASKS!!! when you clean mold and cat feces will make you very sick) were able to help clean up most of the mess. Most of her things were not salvageable. She had several cats that used everything as a litter box because they had no choice. This cleanup and maintaining her place to an agreed upon standard was/is very difficult for her to do. We as a family need to keep regular tabs on her to make sure she is keeping up with her meds and treatment plan We also agreed no pets. It is a long and difficult ongoing process but hang in there, get help and support for yourself, your brother and your mother but do it now it will only get worse the longer it goes on. In my MIL case she was so overwhelmed by the depression and the state her place was in she was unable to cope or even get help for herself.

  27. posted by Brandy on

    maybe get the cats out 1 by 1 and get them fixed. that can help with the animals keeping them from multiplying. try working with one vet and explaining what and why your doing this and you can may get a cheaper rate or call around for low cost clinics.

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