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How to Help a Hoarder Overcome their Obsessive Behavior

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi • updated: 9/9/2010

Is there a hoarder in your life who could use your help? Hoarding is an obsessive behavior that's a threat to a person's well-being and the health of people around them. Here's how to help a hoarder overcome their habit.

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    Is a family member or friend close to you a closet hoarder? Hoarders come in all shapes, sizes, and types. Some are pack rats, who let their hoarding get out of hand; while other hoarders have a mental disorder that makes it difficult for them to stop accumulating - no matter how much "stuff" they have.

    When a hoarder takes their practice to the extreme, it's a hazard to their own well-being as well as that of people around them. Some hoarders collect so many “treasures” and belongings that it becomes a health risk, both from a physical and psychological perspective. Do you know “an accumulator” who needs a helping hand? Here’s how to help a hoarder get back on track.

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    How to Help a Hoarder: Open Up a Line of Communication

    Hoarders often feel socially isolated - and encouraging them to talk about their habit in a supportive manner helps them feel comfortable - and more amenable to change. Prompt them to talk about why they hoard without being judgmental. Ask them if they’d like to change - and let them know you’re willing to help.

    If you think the hoarder is a threat to their own safety, encourage them to seek professional help; but never berate them for their hoarding habit. Instead, encourage them to open up and discuss the problem with you.

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    Help a Hoarder by Offering Assistance

    Once you’ve opened up a line of communication, ask to help them change their hoarding habit. Many hoarders want to stop accumulating, but they don’t know where to start and they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what they’ve collected.

    Let them know that you’re willing to go through their belongings with them and help them donate items they no longer need. Emphasize that they can decide what to donate and that it can be done at their own pace – and on their own terms.

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    Getting Started

    To help a hoarder, start with one small area of their house, such as a single closet, and let the hoarder decide what to discard. Only evaluate a limited number of items each day – and let the hoarder control the pace. Never discard an item without the hoarder’s permission – and give the hoarder praise and positive feedback at the end of each session. Emphasize that the items are going to a good cause.

    Continue working with the hoarder to clear out excess items in small increments, while organizing the items that remain. Show them how good it feels to be organized and not weighed down by unnecessary belongings.

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    How to Help a Hoarder When They Can’t Let Go

    Some hoarders aren't amenable to cleaning out their possessions, no matter how supportive you are. You can encourage them to seek professional help, but many won’t. What should you do then?

    If they’re a threat to their own healthy or safety or if they’re collecting animals and not caring for them properly, contact the appropriate authorities. Otherwise, help them hook up with local support groups for hoarders, or find a former hoarder who’s willing to offer emotional support. It helps for a hoarder to converse with other people who understand their motivations.

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    How to Help a Hoarder: The Bottom Line

    Establishing trust is critical for helping a hoarder change their ways. Help them take baby steps toward addressing their problem – in a non-judgmental, respectful manner – and be patient. Change takes time.

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    References

    International OCD Foundation. “IOCDF Hoarding Center”.

    Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding. Tolin, Frost, and Stetekee. Oxford University Press. 2007.