If you have a friend with a hoarding disorder, you may feel overwhelmed yourself. It can be saddening and frustrating to see someone live with this difficult disorder. If you are searching for how to help someone with a hoarding disorder, there are some important do’s and don’ts to remember.
The approach a friend takes can often be detrimental to someone with a hoarding disorder. Similarly, there are ways you can speak that are likely to be beneficial and productive.
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Recognizing the Signs of Hoarding
The American Psychiatric Association recognizes hoarding disorder as a condition where someone saves items that other people may see as having no value. Someone with hoarding disorder will typically have problems getting rid of possessions. The result is clutter that can negatively affect their living and working space and their quality of life.
There are distinctions between hoarding and collecting. A collector might have a specific focus or area of interest, whereas a hoarder seems to display no rhyme or reason for what they keep and store. An estimated 2 to 6 percent of the population has a hoarding disorder. Research indicates it could be more common in males versus females and more prevalent in older adults.
Hoarding warning signs can include:
- Problems giving away or throwing away possessions, regardless of the value
- Experiencing distress when giving away items or even considering giving them away
- Feeling safe when surrounded by possessions
- Living space may be filled or blocked by items to the point that they are unusable.
In addition to the apparent signs of hoarding, people with hoarding disorder often have other associated issues. For example, someone with hoarding disorder may have problems with indecision, disorganization or they may have difficulty concentrating and avoiding distractions. People with hoarding disorder may also have other mental health disorders like anxiety, depression or substance use disorders.
There are also logistical dangers of hoarding. For example, it can create an unsafe or unsanitary living environment. Hoarding could block points of exit, which can be dangerous if an accident or emergency occurred. Health code violations and tripping hazards can occur in spaces where a hoarder lives.
Hoarding disorder can also create problems with relationships and interpersonal conflicts. Issues with relationships can lead to social isolation.
Do’s For Helping Someone with Hoarding Disorder
Knowing what to say to a hoarder and how to talk to a hoarder can be challenging. It can be a delicate and emotionally-charged situation when you speak to someone with a hoarding disorder. The following are some helpful things you can do or say to help someone struggling with hoarding:
1. Educate Yourself on Hoarding
Hoarding disorder is complex and caused by different issues. Learning and educating yourself about hoarding can be a great starting point if you want to help someone you care about. It’s easy to view hoarding disorder as something that is illogical and makes no sense. Thinking of it that way can prevent you from being empathetic, so educating yourself can help you become a better support system.
2. Focus on the Person, Not the Stuff
Understand that hoarding disorder isn’t necessarily about the “stuff.” It’s often about much more, and there are underlying causes. Realize that your focus as you’re working to help your friend shouldn’t necessarily be the objects, but those factors that are contributing to the behaviors.
3. Listen and Empathize
When someone has a hoarding disorder, it often leads to social isolation and problems with relationships. People may avoid friends and loved ones because of fear of judgment. Be there as someone who will listen empathetically to help your friend avoid that spiral into isolation.
4. Set Reasonable Expectations
Hoarding isn’t something that just suddenly happens. It’s often a long and ongoing process. Recovery will similarly be a process. Be reasonable with your expectations and help your friend set realistic and attainable milestones for themselves in their recovery.
5. Recognize Positive Change
Celebrating victories, no matter how small, is important to help someone with hoarding disorder. Even the tiniest step in a positive direction is something to be recognized, which will help encourage further and more significant changes.
6. Volunteer to Help
There are different ways to help someone with hoarding disorder without enabling them. For example, you can help sort and clean the person’s home, with their permission. Just don’t do it for them. Instead, do it with them. You can also volunteer to help by researching therapists for them, or attending a support group or meeting with them.
7. Encourage Them to Seek Professional Help
Many people with hoarding disorder recognize that it’s an issue, but they’re often overwhelmed by the thought of finding help. There is hoarding treatment and support available in different settings. While you can’t force someone you care about to receive hoarding professional help, you can research treatment programs and providers. If your friend is ready and willing to listen, share what you find.
Don’ts for Helping a Hoarder
When you have a relationship with a hoarder whether it’s a romantic partner, a friend or a family member, it’s difficult to know what to say versus what not to say. A hoarder can become upset, defensive or experience distress if you speak to them about eliminating their possessions or making a change. Learning what not to say to a hoarder can be challenging, particularly if you want to support them and encourage them to receive help.
Some things to avoid doing and saying to a hoarder include the following:
1. Don’t Touch Their Belongings Without Permission
Wanting to help someone you care about natural, however, when that person has hoarding disorder, you want to be careful not to cause them distress or worsen the problem. Touching their items without permission or attempting to get rid of anything without consent could upset or damage your relationship with a hoarder.
Trying to throw items away without permission typically isn’t a successful long-term strategy. In addition to someone becoming upset or angry with you for doing it, they’re less likely to get professional help and more likely to continue engaging in the same behavioral patterns.
2. Don’t Expect a Quick Clean-Up
If a hoarder does agree to get rid of items or begin cleaning up their space, it’s a process and takes time. It’s not something they’re going to be able to do overnight and if you have that expectation, it can be frustrating and impede their progress.
Hoarding isn’t something that occurs overnight either—it often spans for years or decades. It’s more than just throwing out objects; it’s a process of emotional healing and sometimes confronting some painful truths.
3. Don’t Judge Them
When someone is struggling with hoarding, the last thing they need or want is to feel judged. You can be supportive and even encourage a person to seek help without being judgmental. As difficult as it can be, remain empathetic.
4. Don’t Enable Hoarding Behavior
While you can’t control the behavior of another person, you can manage your behavior. Think about ways that you could be an enabler for the hoarder. For example, don’t give a hoarder objects as gifts each year. Don’t be their shopping partner, and don’t volunteer to store items for them.
None of these behaviors are ultimately going to be helpful for someone with a hoarding disorder, even if it can seem like it is in the short-term.
5. Don’t Clean Up After Them
If you are regularly cleaning up for someone with a hoarding disorder, it’s going to create one less reason for them to seek help and work on changing things for themselves independently. You can help someone go through their items and organize them, but that doesn’t mean that you’re eradicating the root cause of their hoarding disorder.
6. Don’t Expect Perfection
Don’t get frustrated. If you care about someone who is a hoarder and they agree to make changes, it’s going to be difficult for them. Don’t try to make them feel like they have to be perfect when they do begin to make changes. Gradual changes are effective and valuable. Someone may also have setbacks even once they make a change, and that’s okay too. It’s all part of the process. Rather than expecting perfection, help them get back on track.
Additional Hoarding Resources
In addition to professional treatment programs, there are other hoarding resources and hoarding support programs available in communities throughout the country. Resource groups are an excellent way to connect with local resource and find information. Support groups can help hoarders share their own stories and connect with people who have similar experiences.
One good source of information and hoarding resources is the International OCD Foundation, Available from the International OCD Foundation are tools to find therapists and support programs. The organization also offers educational resources for individuals and families.
Clutterers Anonymous is another organization and hoarding support group based on the 12 steps of recovery. It’s a fellowship group for men and women, and it’s not associated with any particular organization or religious denomination. To find a local meeting, interested people can go to the Clutterers Anonymous website and enter their zip code. The group also offers phone and Skype meetings for people who can’t go to an in-person meeting for any reason. The website provides a directory of telephone and Skype meeting information.
Key Points: Helping a Friend with Hoarding Disorder
- Hoarding disorder is a mental health disorder often linked with anxiety or OCD
- Avoid doing things that will cause distress if you want to help a friend with hoarding disorder. This could include touching or throwing away possessions without their permission.
- Positive ways to help a friend with hoarding disorder can include learning more about the disorder itself and practicing empathy toward your friend.
- Encourage your friend to seek help or treatment if he or she struggles with a hoarding disorder.
Hoarding can be frightening and frustrating for someone with the disorder, as well as their loved ones. As a friend, there are approaches you can take to be helpful in a positive, productive way, as well as some things to avoid. If you or someone you know is living with a hoarding disorder, we encourage you to contact The Recovery Village and learn more about available treatment programs.
Parekh, Ranna, M.D., M.P.H., “What Is Hoarding Disorder.”American Psychiatric Association., July 2017. Accessed January 9, 2019.
The Mayo Clinic. “Hoarding Disorder.” Accessed January 9, 2019.
Sorrentino, Christina M, PhD, LCSW. “How To Talk to Someone With Hoarding: Do’s and Don’ts.” Mass Housing. Accessed January 9, 2019.
Bennett, Gina. “Five Tips to Help Someone Who Hoards.” Sane Australia. December 6, 2016. Accessed January 9, 2019.
IOCDF. “What Is Hoarding Disorder.” Accessed January 9, 2019.