Ask Unclutterer: Please help, I believe my sibling is a hoarder

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer (some information has been changed to protect privacy):

I have a 60 year old sibling who has been hoarding since her child went off to college. S/he is now sleeping in the bath tub. S/he insists s/he is not a hoarder. The other siblings and I have attempted to help clean, but it is truly overwhelming. My sibling has issues with abandonment, victimization, and discrimination. Can you help?

To let readers of the site know, I responded to J when this question arrived in my inbox and didn’t make her or him wait for me to write about it in a column. It’s a common type of question we receive to the site, however, and so I wanted to address it more publicly for anyone who may come to Unclutterer with similar concerns.

Hoarding is a serious and real illness for those who are plagued by it. It’s not a personality quirk or something they’re able to control at this point in time. The person is not hoarding to upset you, but the stuff is likely upsetting the hoarder and he or she feels completely powerless about it. Similar to other physical and psychological ailments, hoarding is not a condition that goes away on its own. Hoarding requires the treatment of a licensed medical and/or psychological practitioner who has been especially trained to help people who are diagnosed hoarders.

Not all people who have excessive numbers of belongings, though, are hoarders (some are chronically disorganized, some have other ailments and hoarding is a side effect, some are situational and will be processed over the course of a year, etc.). That is why it is vital to have the person evaluated so proper help can be given to him or her. What is most important is to get the best care for the person who needs it. And, the best care is rarely a forced cleanout as the first step in the process. Although a forced cleanout would make you feel better — knowing your sibling is no longer living in a dangerous physical environment would most certainly relieve some of your anxiety — it won’t treat the hoarding and the place will just fill up with more stuff in a matter of months. (Or, worse — forced cleanouts have been linked to some suicides among the hoarding population.)

Thankfully, most licensed medical and psychological practitioners also work in combination with professional organizers who have been trained to work with this segment of the population. With treatment, almost all homes and lives of hoarders will see improvements over time.

As someone who loves a hoarder, it also can be difficult to see someone in need — as it is the same as seeing someone you love hurt in a car accident or in the hospital with pneumonia. You want to be able to fix things, and that desire is understandable. For someone on the outside looking in (both literally and figuratively), there are also resources available for you so you can provide the best type of support for your sibling (or spouse or child or parent or friend).

If you suspect you or someone you love may be a hoarder, seek out the help of the following respected organizations:

  • The International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center — This group is led by Randy Frost, PhD, and Gail Steketee, PhD, two of the nation’s most prominent researchers and clinicians in the field. I strongly recommend starting with this site to learn as much as you can.
  • Children of Hoarders — Although their site name implies they only help children of hoarders, they do much more than just help children. They have an incredible support forum for people who love those who struggle with hoarding. Additionally, their Resources section is very helpful.
  • Institute for Challenging Disorganization — The ICD provides superior information to those working daily with hoarders and individuals with chronic disorganization, as well as individuals seeking their support. This is another must-stop site when learning about hoarding and resources available for hoarders and those who love them.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope you are able to find the type of assistance you are searching for through one or more of the previously mentioned organizations. You’re also a wonderful sibling for loving and wanting to help your brother or sister. Please also check the comments for insights from our readership, many of whom have been in a similar situation as yourself. Good luck!

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.

3 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Please help, I believe my sibling is a hoarder”

  1. posted by Lala on

    What a timely article for me….

    I am just now (within the last hour) finished with cleaning out my father’s home. He was a hoarder, and his house took four professional cleaners (that were worth every penny – they were awesome) 3 days of heavy work and four 30 foot dumpsters to clear. We are going to have to gut the inside of the house and rebuild and remodel just to try to sell it. This has been a horrible nightmare for both my sister and myself.

    My sister and I had been begging and pleading with our dad for at least the last 20 years to let us help him – find a counselor, sort through things – anything to get the house safer and cleaner. He refused all offers, and would become seriously angry if pressed for too long.

    He was forced to move out due to a fatal lung condition – not caused by the filth, but certainly the filth shortened his life considerably (there was black mold in his bedroom, in addition to the dust, dirt, mice and bug infestation). He still would not have left but for him becoming so feeble he was unable to live alone any more.

    A forced cleanout while the hoarder is still alive/in residence will not work and it may even drive the hoarder to cut ties with friends and family members – further isolating and endangering them. Unless the mental aspect is dealt with, the hoarder will just rebuild the “collection” back to the same levels since they are not able to stop the hoarding on their own.

    Sometimes, the only thing you can do is make sure to check on them often and offer as much help as they’ll allow. It is a heartbreakingly difficult thing to deal with.

    If someone you love is a hoarder – first I am so sorry for both you and for them. Second – keep at them to get the help they need and be there for them as best you can. And to the hoarder – I know that it is overwhelming what you’re dealing with, but please, please seek out the help you need. Not just for your own safety, but for your loved ones that are suffering with you and for you. Don’t put them through this kind of pain and don’t leave this horrible legacy for them to deal with. There is a way out of this if you can just take the first step to get help.

  2. posted by Lesley on

    Lala, you are a wonderful daughter. God bless you.

  3. posted by M on

    I tell you. My Mother has been one of these People for a long time now! Before we moved in too a new home well year ago at are old home ? She would have that Geroge all full of stuff my Father company like why don’t you clean out the Greoge he kept it clean he would always kept it clean but when my Mother went in ther she dirty up again. Us Children kept our room soo tidy & Clean. But Mother put a lot of food in the Freg & Frezer like you wouldn’t believe. Then when we moved in too a new home she Stell dose it then my Father has too clean it up again then here comes Mother again. We got a new Frege well the sane too all a mess. Mimi

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