It's estimated that between 2 and 5 per cent of Australian adults are living with hoarding disorder, with the condition tending to become more problematic in older age.
Hoarding behaviour is less about the accumulation of ‘stuff’, but more so the meaning people attach to these items or objects. For people who hoard, some items may be considered very special or potentially useful in the future.
Items may hold sentimental value, or be representative of an important person or historical event. Other items can be considered too good of a bargain to part with, and there is often a sense of indecision around how to display, store or file these possessions.
This inflated sense of attachment to one’s possessions can cause a build-up of clutter over time. If left unaddressed, this build-up can become overwhelming and can interfere with a person’s ability to comfortably inhabit their space or use it.
Supporting a loved one with hoarding disorder can be frustrating and emotionally draining, and can at times leave you feeling like you’re swimming against the current. For friends and family members, hoarding can lead to feelings of anger, resentment, shame or confusion, and relationships can become easily strained.
Amongst all the clutter and stress, it can be hard to find a pathway forward. So here are five tips to support someone with a hoarding disorder.
Focus more on the person, and less on the ‘stuff’
Assisting someone with a hoarding disorder is more complex than just hiring a skip, walking into their house and throwing out all their belongings.
While this approach might help everyone else feel better, it can feel very violating to the person struggling.
So long as the underlying causes of the hoarding go unaddressed, the hoarding behaviour will likely resume and the space will soon be filled again.
Be there for your loved one
People with hoarding disorder are often socially isolated and have minimal support in their lives. Let your loved one know that you are thinking about them, and remind them often what you love about them.
Emphasise that to you, hoarding is just one aspect of who they are, not their entire identity. Simply knowing that you do not pass judgement about the hoarding will build trust between you and your loved one, and help them to feel safe in your presence.
Set achievable goals and celebrate the small victories
If your loved one is ready to begin the decluttering process, encourage them to identify just one small area in the home to clear. This could be a box, a drawer, or just one particular room.
Alternatively, encourage your loved one to discard just one item per week (a piece of mail). While it may take 3 hours to discard just a few pieces of paper, this effort can feel monumental to your loved one, and may leave them feeling completely exhausted. Setting smaller, more achievable goals will help your loved one to build confidence, gain momentum, and feel proud of the progress they are making.
Allow your loved one to feel in control
As difficult as it may be, avoid the temptation to take over the decluttering process. This can quickly lead to feelings of resentment or burn out – neither of which are helpful for either of you.
Instead, ask your loved one how you can be most helpful. Set some guidelines together about boundaries – find out what is and is not okay by them when you’re in their space. This approach not only conveys respect for your loved one, it also protects you from becoming overly invested in the problem and ensures your capacity to provide support.
Encouraging someone to reach out is not always easy, especially if they’re not ready. Sometimes it can take several conversations before a person is willing to admit there is an issue.
With compassion and understanding, offer to accompany your loved one to the GP, where they can receive a referral to a psychologist with expertise in hoarding.
Cognitive behavioural therapy as well as medication has been shown to be helpful in treating hoarding disorder. Other avenues such as joining a support group (online or face-to-face) can also be helpful as this reduces feelings of isolation and shame and may even help motivate the person to seek individual treatment.
Gina Bennett is a SANE Help Centre Advisor.
- Read self-help book 'Buried in Treasures' by David Tolin, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. Or check out these other recommended titles.
- Listen to ABC Radio National’s ‘All in the Mind’ Podcast about hoarding disorder.
- Locate a hoarding self-help support group in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and South Australia.
For more information about hoarding disorder, call the SANE Help Centre on 1800 18 7263 (Monday – Friday between 9am – 5pm).