How to help a hoarder – if they don’t want help.
1. Now that I have your attention, use respectful language. The word ‘hoarder’ carries stigma. ‘Someone who hoards’ is much preferred. Also avoid referring to their stuff as clutter or junk, as they probably don’t see it that way.
2. Primarily you should assess their level of hoarding. Do they have a hoarding problem, or is their house not to your standards?
3. Don’t force help upon them. If they go away or out for the day, it can be tempting to pounce on the opportunity to ‘help’ by doing a sneaky spot of decluttering. This can erode trust and cause further trauma. And how do you think people who hoard might deal with stress or trauma? That’s right, collect more.
4. Instead, have a non-judgemental discussion around their situation. Ask questions. Look up Motivational Interviewing, which is an evidence-based approach to behaviour change. Don’t alienate.
5. Focus on safety if nothing else. Encourage them to check smoke alarms, clear space for safe entry and exit, and ensure the cooktop and heating areas are clear of fire hazards.
How to help a hoarder – if they DO want help.
6. It’s a huge privilege to be entrusted to help, so take it easy. Adjust your expectations, as people who hoard are unlikely to tolerate a drastic clear-out. Just helping them make the dwelling safer or create space to eat a meal might seem insufficient to you, but could be a huge help to them. Baby steps.
7. Start with the low-hanging fruit, or whatever is easy for them. That might mean clearing obvious rubbish and emptying the bins to create some space and a sense of progress. Then pick an area which is achievable for them. A zone like the fridge or pantry often involves best-before dates which can make decision-making easier. Leave the sentimental stuff until later.
8. Suggest counselling, a psychologist or psychiatrist to address underlying issues including trauma and neurodivergence. There may also be a support group or program that can help.
9. Highlight your loved-one’s strengths, and celebrate even the smallest victories.
10. Encourage them to not only de-hoard, but also slow or stop acquiring. That might mean staying out of op shops (offer to take their donations for them), and off shopping websites.
And remember, how to help a hoarder means focussing on the person, not the possessions.