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.

Life-threatening clutter

We often talk about the dangers of clutter, but tragedy has a way of bringing it home. An 80 year-old man in Evanston, Illinois, was found under several feet of clutter in an attempt to escape his burning home. From the article:

When firefighters arrived, they found flames coming from the west side of the home, said [Evanston Fire Department Division Chief Tom] Janetske. When they tried to enter the front door, they were unable, so went around to a side door, Janetske said.

When they were able to begin their search of the home, firefighters, including some who were able to force their way in the front door, found the man under about 3 feet of debris in the home’s living room, about 10 feet from the front door, Janetske said.

If you know of someone who is a hoarder and whose life might be in danger, please help them to find medical assistance. The Hoarders television website has an excellent resource page that lists many programs and organizations.

Hoarders season two premieres tonight on A&E

Tonight is the premiere of the second season of the A&E television show Hoarders at 10/9c. We’ve written a few times about the first season of the show, and even heard from people who have been featured on the program in our comments section. I continue to have mixed feelings about it — I love that it is bringing a human face to this mental health issue and raising awareness, but I wish that there was less shock and awe factor in what is broadcast.

We’ve heard from a number of people associated with the show that the second season is going to talk more about treatment options and look more closely at the psychological aspects of the disorder than was the case in season one. I truly hope this is accurate because I believe the hoarders on the show deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not saying that they weren’t in season one — I know from first-hand accounts that they were given excellent help behind the scenes during the filming of the episodes — but what translated onto the screen didn’t always reflect the entire process. I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode and seeing how the changes are implemented.

After the episode airs, feel welcome to jump onto our Unclutterer Forums and talk about it in our second season Hoarders thread. If you don’t get A&E, check out the official Hoarders website in a couple days where they will post the full episode online.

Hoarders: Geralin Thomas discusses her experience on the show

We’ve talked a couple times already about the new television show Hoarders on A&E, and I wanted to continue this discussion by directing you to an insider’s look into the show’s production. Professional organizer Geralin Thomas, who appeared on the first and second episode of the show, has written “Organizing a Hoarder’s Home for Television” describing her experience:

When working with a hoarder on this series, I have asked each client to commit to working with a therapist (counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist) and/or a professional organizer after I leave. (The organizing-filming only lasts 2 days and there are a lot of stops and starts for the film crew to change batteries, etc.) While it’s OK with me if the therapist isn’t on site at the same time I’m working with the client, I always stress the importance of the therapist-client-organizer relationship. There will be no lasting change if the hoarder is not willing to also work with a mental health professional for some period of time.

I was surprised to learn that filming only occurred over two days, and I think this explains why viewers don’t get to see anything other than the purging process. Geralin is an amazing individual and a highly skilled and trained professional organizer. Her insights into her experience are definitely worth reading and I’m glad she took the time to write her post.

Stuff versus relationships

Professional organizer extraordinaire Monica Ricci returns to Unclutterer to talk to us about the anxieties hoarders experience. You can follow Monica on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog for more organizing tips.

On a recent episode of A&E’s Hoarders a key concept was brought to light by my dear friend and hoarding expert Dorothy Breininger. The important concept is stuff versus relationships. It’s so sad to see individuals choose their stuff over the people in their lives. To those of us watching the show at home, the hoarder’s behavior doesn’t initially seem to make sense.

In my industry, I often encounter clients who have a history of choosing stuff over people. It’s not just hoarders who do it, either. People often choose the comfort of stuff over relationships because relationships can be scary. People can reject you. People are sometimes critical and judgmental. People can be mean, insensitive, and heartless. People can leave you, abandon you, and disappoint you. But your stuff never will.

That is, until your stuff chokes the life out of you.

It could be easy to watch the television show Hoarders and lose sight of the humanity of the people featured. But we shouldn’t. All of us can empathize with the anxiety that the hoarders feel — we’ve all felt abandoned, disappointed, and ridiculed by others. We can understand how someone stopped focusing on the people in their life and turned to their stuff. Hopefully, with time, treatment, and assistance, the hoarders featured on the show can turn again to people and let go of so much of their stuff. I also hope that you continue to make the same choice.

Hoarders: A new show

Last night, A&E aired its first episode of its series “Hoarders.” The show will air weekly on Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. CT.

I didn’t write about it beforehand because I was nervous about how the show was going to treat the subject matter. Hoarding is a psychological disorder and compulsive hoarders should be under the treatment of a licensed medical professional, and I was afraid that the mental health issues would be pushed aside for the shock and awe of the homes.

After watching the first episode, I have to say that they did go for shock and awe — the show actually began like an episode of the fictional drama “Law and Order” and the music added during editing makes the show sound like a horror film — but, they did mention some of the underlying issues of the psychological disorder. And, in the show’s favor, they used trained professionals to help the hoarders on the show. One of the professional organizers in the first episode is NSGCD-certified Geralin Thomas, whose writing you have seen here on Unclutterer and whose work I greatly admire. So, even though you might not have seen it in the episode, I feel confident that the hoarders were treated with respect off camera and at least in Jill and Ron’s case the hoarders are receiving continuing help.

Unfortunately, I followed the Twitter streams of people responding to the show as they were watching it and was horrified by what some people were saying. Many people were judging the hoarders as being “bad” and “disgusting” instead of individuals, real people, who are suffering from a psychological disorder. I hope that in the coming episodes the show works more diligently to educate viewers about the mental health issues that hoarders experience and treat the issue with more respect (less horror film sound effects and shock-and-awe editing). I also hope that they provide more information about what happens after the initial cleanup and medical treatment that is available for hoarders. As it is now, it seemed that most viewers were just interested in looking at piles of stuff and A&E definitely catered to them.

Instead of the link at the beginning of the episode that referred hoarders to InterventionTV (I’m not kidding, they directed people to a site about how they can be on a reality television show), we at Unclutterer recommend the following resources:

Animal hoarding

It seems like every few months there is a story on the local news about a house that is completely filled with animals. The story usually goes like this: A foul odor was reported from neighbors and animal control was called in to investigate. Upon further investigation, the house was home to more than “X” number of animals.  

The cats and or dogs are then put into cages and hauled off to an animal shelter. Many of the animals are diseased, malnourished, and unfortunately euthanized. This is a peculiar form of hoarding that accounts for roughly 1,500 cases per year. 

Hoarding is a type of obsessive compulsive disorder that takes hold of people’s lives. Hoarders want to hold on to just about everything they come in contact with. Animal hoarders are usually lonely, older individuals that accumulate a large number of animals to protect them from harm. In doing so, the conditions in the home deteriorate over time. This leads to a very unhealthy environment for the animals as well as the hoarder. From

Hoarders justify their behavior with the view that the animals are surrogate children and that no one else can care for them. They harbor a fear that if they seek help the animals will be euthanized.

More recently, in a publication from the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk, Patronek and his cohorts list four key characteristics:

  • Failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care for the animals
  • Inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment
  • Obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions
  • Denial or minimization of problems and living conditions for people and animals

For more information on animal hoarding, go to or the Animal Hoarding News and Info blog.

For more information on hoarding in general, check out these resources:

Compulsive clutter in New York City

Hoarding is a topic that we at Unclutterer feel should be part of the uncluttering conversation. Hoarding is a serious medical condition, usually linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, which can take over someone’s life and living space.

The other day, I discovered the website Hoardhouse. It is a project being assembled by a group of journalism students at Columbia University. From the their website:

All three of the authors are very curious about the issue of hoarding and how it impacts the lives of New York City residents.

This project will explore the hoarders, psychologists, social workers, and cleanup specialists for whom hoarding is a defining phenomenon.

The final version of the site will be live by March 23, 2009.

While readers of Unclutterer may be familiar with hoarding, it is a psychological ailment that still isn’t understood by much of the general public. It is encouraging to see these journalism students working to increase public awareness about the disorder’s damaging effects.

If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive hoarding, please try and get help from the following resources:

Once again, hoarding is a disorder that should be treated by a licensed medical professional.

Learning more about compulsive hoarding

I receive a number of e-mails from readers asking for personal help or help for friends and family members who suffer from compulsive hoarding. Whenever these requests come into my inbox, I feel a sense of helplessness because all I can do is guide them to other resources. Compulsive hoarding is a psychological and medical condition, similar to obsessive compulsive disorder, and requires treatment from a licensed, medical professional.

The magazine Psychology Today approximates that 2 million U.S. residents suffer from compulsive hoarding disorder. This diagnosis is usually made based on results to one or more of the following tests: The Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS), the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS), the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (Ham-A), the Global Assessment Scale (GAS), or the Clinical Global Impression/Improvement (CGI) scale. Psychiatrists and medical doctors make the official diagnosis, but, unfortunately, too many cases go undiagnosed.

A report published in June of 2006 in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found evidence that “SRI [serotonin reuptake inhibitors] medications are effective for compulsive hoarding,” and so many compulsive hoarders are finding help for their disorder with a combination of psychotherapy and SRIs. If you know someone who is a compulsive hoarder, I strongly recommend that you encourage them to seek medical treatment so that they can find some relief from this debilitating disorder.

If you’re interested in learning more about compulsive hoarding, the TLC network has a special called, “Help! I’m a Hoarder!” that will air again on August 10, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. The show explores the symptoms and treatments of compulsive hoarding disorder. From the TLC’s website:

“More than a million Americans suffer from disposophobia – the fear of throwing anything away. Meet three individuals who face the devastating effects of compulsive hoarding. You’ll never look at your clutter in the same way again.”

This special aired last September, and my understanding is the August 10 episode is a re-broadcast of last year’s program. I can’t find documentation on TLC’s website to know for certain. So, if you missed the show last year, let me definitely recommend that you tune in this year to learn more about this paralyzing condition.

San Francisco health workers offer help to hoarders

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article highlights a program that the city of San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services and the nonprofit Mental Health Association of San Francisco have created. They have teamed up to create the Institute on Hoarding and Cluttering. The program will help local hoarders deal with all aspects of their obsessive behavior.

From the article:

Nationally, an estimated 1 million to 2 million people are compulsive hoarders. And while statistics aren’t available for just how many people in San Francisco suffer from the condition, experts say the city has become the center for study of the problem and might have more hoarders per capita than other areas.

The compact, expensive city has many SRO hotels and other small living spaces as well as an aging population that has had years to collect clutter. Dementia also can contribute to hoarding.

The nonprofit Mental Health Association of San Francisco and the city’s Department of Aging and Adult Services have teamed up to create the Institute on Hoarding and Cluttering. That group conducts training of professionals such as nurses and in-home care providers, and last summer officials launched an effort to enhance communication among city agencies that work with hoarders.

The association sees about 250 new hoarding patients a year and runs a support group for them. The Department of Public Health has two inspectors, including Oblena, who visit SRO hotels that are run by nonprofits contracted by the city to provide housing.

If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive hoarding, try and get help from the following resources:

For those of you in the San Francisco area, there will be a 16-week hoarding and cluttering treatment group that will be held starting Monday, April 28, 2008.

Hoarding kindling

House FireNo, people aren’t hoarding small pieces of dry wood for starting a fire, but a person who is hoarding has definitely created a fire hazard. In this Omaha World Herald article, the dangers of hoarding and fire safety are examined. From the article:

When clutter becomes serious hoarding, though, dwellings become difficult to navigate. It raises mental health and public health issues and becomes a potential nightmare for firefighters.

“We do encounter hoarding on occasion,” Giles said, “and it may not be evident from the street,” where the fire crew assesses the location of the flames and rescue needs.

A fire blamed on faulty wiring killed three people in Fremont, Neb., last week. And clutter hampered firefighters from the moment they arrived, just minutes after receiving the alarm.

Hoarding has negative effects on a person’s emotional well-being, but it may also wind up having a very dire physical toll. Not only to the hoarder, but to firefighters trying to navigate through a maze of trash. The hoarded mess also adds fuel to the fire. Boxes stacked to the ceiling packed full of clothes aren’t exactly deterrents for a spreading inferno.

Succumbing to a fiery end in the middle of a hoarded mess of clutter, may be one of the worst ways to leave this world. If you know of anyone who has a hoarding problem, please try and get them professional psychological treatment. You may very well be saving their life.

Health effects of hoarding

According to the January 1, 2008, New York Times article “A Clutter Too Deep for Mere Bins and Shelves,” hoarding is a symptom of something much larger than just being messy and disorganized:

Excessive clutter and disorganization are often symptoms of a bigger health problem. People who have suffered an emotional trauma or a brain injury often find housecleaning an insurmountable task. Attention deficit disorder, depression, chronic pain and grief can prevent people from getting organized or lead to a buildup of clutter. At its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding, a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it.

Adding more storage to a home will not remedy the problem. The added storage just becomes a clutter safety net, like we discussed here. More on this from the article:

…the problem with all this is that many people are going about it in the wrong way. Too often they approach clutter and disorganization as a space problem that can be solved by acquiring bins and organizers.

Measures like these “are based on the concept that this is a house problem,” said David F. Tolin, director of the anxiety disorders center at the Institute of Living in Hartford and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Yale.

“It isn’t a house problem,” he went on. “It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”