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.

Pre-paid postage greeting cards save time

It’s the smallest of improvements that often make the biggest difference in my life. For example, Hallmark made mailing cards significantly easier in February with the release of their postage-paid envelopes.

My sister-in-law sent my son a card in one of these envelopes a few weeks ago and when I saw the envelope with that image printed on it, I actually cheered. (I’m weird, I know.) From Hallmark’s corporate website:

Hallmark Postage-Paid Greetings feature the U.S. Postal Service’s Intelligent Mail barcode on the front of the envelope. When the cards are processed at a Postal Service facility, the barcode automatically indicates to the Postal Service the postage is paid. The postage is treated like a Forever stamp, and its value will always be equal to the price of a standard First-Class stamp, regardless of when it’s mailed.

In the article “Birthday cards and reminder systems” from back in 2007, I wrote about how I buy all my cards for the year at a single time to be more efficient. I’ve also been buying enough Forever stamps to cover all the postage for those cards around the same time. These new pre-paid envelopes make it so I don’t have to worry about the second step in the process. Also, it saves time if I need to pick up a last-minute card at the store — I just sign the card and drop it into any mailbox without having to go to the post office (which, since I haven’t yet bought my supply of cards for the year, I’ve actually done twice in the last week). Hallmark saves me from having to run another errand, and I like not having to run errands.

These new envelopes might not be for everyone, especially if you never mail cards, but for someone like me who sends a lot of cards they’re extremely convenient.

What small improvements have made a big difference in your life recently? Share your finds in the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: Helping parents downsize

Reader Amanda submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

After over 40 years in their home, [my 73 year old parents] … have decided to sell and build a house in a nearby community where HOA fees will pay for things like taking care of the yards. I am delighted for them.

… my mother has already expressed:

A) Anxiety about having to clean out their house to get it ready to sell. This also includes having small repairs made and staging the home.

B) Excitement about this being a chance to go through the things that they’ve collected over 40 years and toss/donate/sell the things they no longer want. She sees this as a chance to dump the unwanted and move forward only with what they want, need, and enjoy.

Do you have advice and resources I could pass on to my mother? … Any help you can offer would be welcome! Thanks.

Question A is easy to answer because good real estate agents have contractors and stagers on their staffs who do exactly these types of projects or they have a short list of trusted professionals they recommend using. When we sold our house last year, our agent’s team patched small nail holes, replaced a broken latch on a window, brought in a professional cleaning crew, mulched our flower beds, and staged the whole house. If the agent your parents are considering working with doesn’t have quick access to these services, they may want to interview some more agents to find one who really knows what he/she is doing. Since your parents are planning to move in just six months, now is a great time to start working with an agent.

Question B is terrific news because it means your parents are already thinking about the uncluttering and moving process in a positive way, too. You can help your parents by researching names of local charities and what types of donations the charities accept and how to make donations (drop off times, days of weeks, locations) to those charities. You can research what types of trash your parents’ waste management service collects for those things that really do need to be purged, as well as the area’s hazardous waste policies for any chemicals you parents won’t want to move into their new space. You can set up a Craig’s List account for your folks, if they’re interested in selling items. You can also find out names of local professional organizers who are specifically trained to help move people over age 65 through the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

If your parents are interested, you can also help them to unclutter, drop off items at charities, and pack. Work out a schedule with them so each day a little work can be done, and so you’ll know when you’re welcome to lend a hand and when they would rather privately work. Most of all, be prepared to listen. Downsizing from a family home can be emotionally difficult — even if it is a welcome move — and the difficulty is often alleviated through the sharing of stories about the memories that were made in the home.

Thank you, Amanda, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to your family over the next six months. Also, be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

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.

Build your uncluttering and organizing skills by helping others

After being told by a teacher in high school that my writing was “average, at best,” I set out on a mission to improve my writing skills. I studied and practiced during my free time, which was an odd pastime for a teenager, and I pushed myself to learn whatever I could. I found I really enjoyed writing, and ended up pursuing a journalism degree in college. In graduate school, I kept with the writing theme and produced my master’s thesis on how to help non-native English speakers acquire vocabulary words based on morphemes to improve their writing and reading comprehension. Studying texts, taking classes, researching the brain and how it stores and uses languages were all fine methods for acquiring information about writing, and my writing did improve — but it wasn’t until I stepped into a classroom and taught 15-year-old students how to improve their writing that I truly blossomed as a writer.

My first year of teaching, a student wrote on a worksheet the following misquoted phrase from The Great Gatsby: “the cocktail yellow music.”

I knew “the cocktail yellow music” wasn’t grammatically correct (nor was it how Fitzgerald had penned it), but I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to mark it wrong on my student’s worksheet until I was sure I could explain to her why it was wrong. I tracked down an accomplished linguistics professor, and she explained to me that adjectives in English have a preference order. As a native English speaker, I instinctually used adjectives in the correct order but had never once thought about it. The adjectives simply flowed out of me in the way that sounded correct. Obviously, the phrase should be “the yellow cocktail music,” which is how it appears in the original text. The grammatical reason it should be this way is because color adjectives are listed before purpose adjectives. Yellow (a color) needs to come before the purpose for the music (the cocktail party). (If you’re curious: More information on adjective order in English.)

Three or four times a week, a student would ask me questions I couldn’t yet answer or make mistakes with their writing I knew were wrong but didn’t know why. I was pushed to learn why the word it takes the possessive unlike other words in the English language, why we say beef when talking about eating cows but don’t have separate words for eating fish or vegetables, why our brains go blind to overused words like said when we read, why it’s now acceptable to split infinitives but wasn’t always, how the passive voice can sometimes better convey information than the active voice, why it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions, and thousands of other specific quirks related to English communication. Teaching young adults how to improve their writing significantly improved my writing. Then, practicing these skills daily has helped me to retain what I learned.

I’ve found the exact same thing to be true with uncluttering and organizing. The more I help others to unclutter and organize their spaces, the better I become at doing these tasks in my own home and office. When I help others, my skill set benefits.

If you’re having issues in your own spaces with clutter and disorganization, help friends to unclutter and organize their homes and offices. Share what knowledge you have (which is probably more than you give yourself credit for knowing) and be open to learning through the process and from your friend. Seek out answers and solutions, and also absorb what you can from those around you. Practice, practice, practice your skills with your friends. Then, if you have good friends, they will return the favor and help to mentor you as you go through your uncluttering and organizing projects. You also may feel confident after your experiences to simply take on your projects alone.

If your friends aren’t game for such an activity, donate some of your time to a charity to clean out and organize a soup kitchen pantry or a game room at a women’s shelter or a clothing closet for a group that provides clothes for job interviews. Mentor your children by bringing them with you to sort materials at a charity’s donation site. You don’t have to work with people you know to build your skills, and it’s often easier to work with items void of your sentimental attachments.

Get out there and help others, which will in turn help build your uncluttering and organizing skills.


The Unclutterer family is growing, and I am elated to share with you the incredible news. Today, Dancing Mammoth (our parent company) is launching a new website that hopes to end mealtime stress. I would like to introduce you to our new sister site:

SimpliFried’s motto: “If your nerves are fried, we’ll be your simple, delicious, and nutritious cooking guide.” Our goal is to make feeding yourself and your family as painless as possible.

Similar to Unclutterer, there will be daily content posted to the site. Topics will range from simplifying and improving your cooking skills to food science to recipes that get you quickly in and out of the kitchen. Once a month there will be meal plans and shopping lists that make your life in the kitchen easier. Check out SimpliFried’s manifesto and About page to learn more.

I’m on board as the site’s Editor-in-Chief, and Matt Fetissoff joins me as our senior writer. Matt has lived for more than an year in an RV, and he knows a thing or two about cooking incredible meals in small spaces with low-tech equipment. Consulting to the site are a couple farmers (one in a major city and one on a large Midwest family farm), a butcher, a nutritionist, a self-declared foodie, and my very picky husband and even more picky peanut-allergic son who test drive every meal plan and recipe.

You can key in the URL by hand, subscribe to SimpliFried’s RSS feed, or get daily updates by e-mail. We also have a Twitter account @SimpliFried that regularly posts links.

Although there are only four posts currently live on the site, we’ve been working on SimpliFried for more than four months getting ready for the launch. I’m honestly surprised I was able to keep it a secret for so long. I am thrilled to finally be able to introduce it to you. The new logo even makes me smile, and I’m so glad we were able to have the same artist make him.

If you are looking for simplification strategies for your kitchen and cooking, I hope that SimpliFried can be a positive resource for you.

Sitter information forms

When you leave your home, you may have a babysitter, pet-sitter, or house-sitter watch over your children, pets, or things. Completing an information sheet with important contact and vital data can keep you and the sitter organized and ready for anything.

You can print and fill out these forms exactly as they are, or use them as inspiration for creating your own.




Never forget to send a card with Jack Cards

With holiday card sending season on the horizon, my husband and I have been trying to decide what we want to send this year. While researching our options, I learned about the website Jack Cards, which is an incredibly helpful service for busy people. It’s more than a holiday card sending service, it’s a service to use throughout the year to remove the stress of buying cards and stamps. An explanation of their service from the website:

Jack Cards is designed for busy people who value sending a handwritten birthday, anniversary or ‘miss you’ card but find it hard to get to a card shop or post office on time.

Based in San Francisco, California, Jack Cards uniquely focuses on delivering pre-scheduled ready-to-go (stamped and addressed) greeting cards to the sender just in time to write their own personal message inside and drop it in the mailbox.

Registration for the service is free, but you pay for the price of the card, shipping the card to you, and postage to the card recipient (domestic and international postage are both available). They have bulk discounts when you buy 5 or more of the same card, which you might do for the holidays. Jack Cards has a very strict privacy policy, so none of the information you give to them will ever be sold and is stored safely. The hardest part of the process is setting up your “My Planner” section, which involves answering questions about the type of cards you wish to send and providing contact information. Setting up the “My Planner” section, however, takes much less time than heading to the store to buy cards and stamps numerous times a year. How involved you want Jack Cards to be in the process is your decision — they can pick out cards or you can do it, they can write a message or you can, they can address the envelope or you can, they can mail the card or you can.

For busy people who like the art of sending handwritten cards, Jack Cards is a terrific service. If having someone else involved in the process isn’t for you, check out “Birthday cards and reminder systems” for tips on how to get cards out the door on time.

(Pictured card by Bumble Ink, available through Jack Cards.)

NeighborGoods helps you find specific items to rent or borrow

Borrow or rent equipment, tools, and reusable goods from your neighbors through the new NeighborGoods site. Instead of buying a specialized item, first check to see if you can save your money (and storage space) and get it on loan from a neighbor.

Since the NeighborGoods site is new, there might not be many items yet available in your community. If you’re interested in building up your community, don’t be shy about spreading the word to your friends and neighbors. The more people using the system increases the likelihood that you’ll find what you need.

Columbus gets creative with clutter recycling program

Anyone who has ever lived in a college town knows that the end of the school year is a trash scavenger’s dream. When students move out of their dorms and apartments, they put on the curb and in large dumpsters anything they don’t wish to take with them to the next chapter of their lives. Anything that isn’t looted, is piled into trash trucks and taken to the city dump.

A lot of these trashed items are in good working order and could be used by someone else. However, after partying it up in celebration of the end of finals, the last thing anyone wants to do is find good homes for their unwanted things.

The Ohio State University has a program that not only helps students responsibly get rid of their clutter at the end of the semester, but it is also available for residents of the Columbus area to use. The program is called “Dump and Run” and The Columbus Dispatch says that the donated items are evaluated, priced, and then sold at the beginning of the semester in a huge yard sale.

For the past six years, dump volunteers have collected hand-me-downs and sold them at thrifty prices to students and bargain-hungry adults in the greater Columbus area. “It’s a great way to reduce waste in landfills, and it has a lot of appeal for students and Columbus residents,” said Podrasky, a junior majoring in environmental policy and management.

Sue Kelly, 54, and husband, Scott Dagenfield, 56, donated her late father’s wooden office desk to make room for a new recliner in her mother’s home.

Nearly 30 years old, the desk is in mint condition.

To encourage students to donate, dump organizers placed bins in each of the college’s residence halls May14. That collection runs until Friday.

Last year, students collected nearly 7 tons of items, said Rachel Gapa, program co-chairwoman.

Thanks to reader Mary for letting us know about this program. Hopefully spreading the word about it will help other college towns learn about this terrific clutter-recycling program.

Hoarding: Why forced cleanouts are unsuccessful

The A&E channel ran a Memorial Day marathon of the first season of its television show Hoarders. After showing all of the original broadcasts, A&E aired a new episode that showed the progress — or, rather lack of progress — of a handful of the show’s participants. Four of the five of the people featured in the new “Where are they one year later?” episode had fully returned to their hoarding ways.

I didn’t watch the new episode and actually heard about it through a blog post on Entertainment Weekly’s website. Learning about it this way was a solid reminder that the show is created for entertainment, and not necessarily to help the participants on the show or teach the audience about the mental disorder. I know from people who have worked with the show that behind the scenes they do try to help the participants, but so much of that isn’t transmitted to the audience. The scary music and the shock and awe storytelling dehumanize the participants, in my opinion.

In the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by hoarding specialists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, the authors say that this recidivist behavior is the norm and should have been expected by the Hoarders production staff. From pages 96 and 97 of the book:

One of the worst experiences for someone with a hoarding problem occurs when another person or crew arrives to clear out the home, usually at the order of the public health department or a frustrated family member … These scenarios almost always leave the hoarder feeling as if his or her most valued possessions have been taken away, which in fact may be the case. Beyond this, most hoarders have a sense of where things are amid the clutter. When someone else moves or discards even a portion of it, this sense of “order” is destroyed. We know of several cases in which hoarders have committed suicide following a forced cleanout.

The time, expense, and trauma of a forced cleanout are not worth the effort if any other alternatives are possible. Although conditions in the home may improve temporarily, the behavior leading to those conditions will not have changed. Moreover, the likelihood of obtaining any future cooperation after such trauma is slim. One Massachusetts town in our survey of health departments conducted a forced cleanout costing $16,000 (most of the town’s health department budget). Just over a year later, the cluttered home was worse than ever.

I continue to have very mixed emotions about the television show Hoarders. I like that the show raises awareness about hoarding, but I don’t feel that it’s necessarily helpful and compassionate information that is being distributed. Did any of you catch the marathon and the “Where are they one year later?” episode? I’m interested in reading your thoughts in the comments.

Again, if you or someone you know is a hoarder, please seek treatment from a licensed medical practitioner. The disorder can be dangerous and treatment has been shown successful for those seeking help.

The following organizations have “find a therapist” functions on their websites that list therapists specifically trained to treat hoarding:

Cleaning your home’s gutters

One of my resolutions for the second quarter of 2010 is to “accomplish all 67 tasks on the ‘Spring Cleaning for the Overachiever’ list on pages 189 and 190 of Unclutter Your Life in One Week.” Since I live in a house that doesn’t have exterior gutters, we swept our house’s flat roof instead of tackling list item number four: “Clean leaves and debris out of gutters.” Sweeping a roof is a comparatively easier chore than cleaning gutters, and I have a lot of sympathy for folks who have to climb up on ladders twice a year to de-muck their gutters.’s recent article “Spring Maintenance: Clean Gutters and Downspouts” is a wonderful step-by-step guide on how to get the debris out of your gutters so that your home is ready for spring rains. I particularly appreciated the final tip of the article:

It’s not often that you’re up close and personal with your gutters so take this opportunity to inspect them for damage as well. Dents, holes and cracks may have surfaced over the winter months and should be repaired as soon as possible.

In addition to the advice that appears in the article, I would recommend doing this chore on a clear morning. It’s nice to get it out of the way first thing and avoid racing the setting sun to get it finished. This isn’t a chore you want to hurry through and risk your safety.

ThredUP clothing exchange service

Do you have clothes in your closet that have been there for months with their price tags still attached? Are there great clothes in your closet that you just never have occasion to wear? Are you ready to clear out some “like new” items that don’t fit you right to make way for pieces that do?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be interested in joining ThredUP. ThredUP is a clothes exchange service that helps you get new and like-new clothes you don’t wear out of your closet and clothes you would like to wear into your closet. From their website:

1. Tell us exactly what you like. We shop other people’s closets to find you hidden gems in your size that we think you’ll love.

2. Let us know the great items you’re no longer wearing. We find thredUP members who are interested in items like these.

3. We manage the peer-to-peer exchange. You send and receive items using our pre-paid envelopes [three envelopes for $12.50] — no trips to the Post Office, ever!

The company was started last year by three men who dislike spending lots of money on clothes and quickly grow bored of what they do buy. I like the program’s Golden Rule: “Send only what you’d be willing to receive.” And, I like that it gets rid of the clothes that you don’t wear that are taking up space in your closets. On the downside, it’s only available to U.S. residents.

Learn more about ThredUP on their FAQ page. Also, they plan to launch a ThredUP KIDS section in the near future. As a parent with a son who never fit into the newborn size, I could have definitely used this service to pass along an entire box of never-worn newborn clothes. (Thankfully, my friend is pregnant with a boy and she was very happy to take the box of clothes from me.)