Help me help my hoarding neighbors
April 25, 2012 5:10 PM   Subscribe

My awesome neighbors need help with a hoarding problem. One spouse has created a living situation that is dangerous to the other and I am in the best position of all their friends and family to help them but I don't know how to tackle this delicate situation.

Spouse #1 is a hoarder who can't stay away from garage sales and Salvation Army. Spouse #2 has severe arthritis and the disease has ruined #2's body to the point where picking up a cup or climbing stairs is very difficult. They live in a tiny place where stuff is piled shoulder high. In the past, the hoarding/messiness was kept in check by #2 but the crippling effect of the arthritis means that no longer happens and things have gotten way out of hand. Two months ago, I helped #2 clear a space and tossed five garbage bags of stuff. This barely widened the path through the living room and, since then, #1's habits have filled that space back in again. I am worried that the mess is contributing to #2's asthma problems and it's only a matter of time before #2 takes a bad fall.

These people are the best neighbors anyone could ask for and they have been very good to me. We share meals together and gossip together and they are like family to me and treat me like a daughter. They pretty much have it together aside from this one area.

I have been asked by spouse #2 to help and I really want to. If I had my way, I would go in there and just clear that stuff OUT but I know that would upset both of them. I feel that #1 should seek out counseling but, for private reasons, that isn't possible. I am willing to put a LOT of time in on this. If it takes some time every day for the entire summer, I'm totally willing. I don't know how to make this happen without really hurting feelings. I'd like advice from people who have been there.
posted by Foam Pants to Human Relations (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Call social services. They are trained to handle situations like this, and also know all the available resources in the area.
posted by lulu68 at 5:12 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't start to clear things out until you bring in a social worker or therapist to work through the person's issues with hoarding. It is a mental disorder that needs to be addressed first and throughout the cleaning process, and you can do a lot more harm than good by just jumping in and trying to clean the symptoms, rather than the cause.
posted by xingcat at 5:16 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I had my way, I would go in there and just clear that stuff OUT but I know that would upset both of them.

That won't help, either. Someone else throwing away hoarded items just makes hoarders go into panic overdrive hoarding mode.

Really, the hoarder needs professional help because it is a mental illness, but you say that's not possible at this time, so I'm not sure what you can do to help except perhaps help hoarder and spouse to come up with a set of agreements about what can be cleaned/discarded/relocated and help execute those agreements. Which the hoarder will break in a matter of weeks if not days, but at least it might give the hoarder some breathing space.

This book is a good book for the lay audience about hoarding, by two of the leading US authorities in the field. This has been praised as an excellent self-help book for people enmeshed in hoarding. The A&E show Hoarders is also surprisingly insightful, if you've never watched it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:22 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding social services or the help of a therapist. Have you ever watched Hoarders on A&E? Family members, spouses, loved ones, junk removal teams and trained therapists and psychiatrists often struggle to succesfully help these people. As much as you might want to, don't go this alone! The worst thing you could do is to get in and help, only to realise that you have to abandon the process halfway through. When you are saying that you are willing to put in a lot of time into this, we're likely talking years before this issue is actually resolved, both psychologically and also in terms of having the house permanantly clear of the hoard. At the very least, suggest to #2 that you would like to help them find outside help (in addition to your help) and that all three of you should discuss how to best go about that. Good luck!
posted by Nightman at 5:24 PM on April 25, 2012

"...give the non-hoarder spouse some breathing space," I mean.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:26 PM on April 25, 2012

Oh, gosh, hoarding is nearly impossible to deal with without the help of a professional -- it's a form of OCD (if I understand correctly), and as someone who is herself a very mild hoarder, it is REALLY tough to change about yourself. Does The Hoarder WANT help? That would make it a bit easier.

I do think calling Social Services and just asking what they recommend you do would help.

Also: you sound like a really, really good neighbor, and they're lucky to have you. Good luck!
posted by Countess Sandwich at 5:32 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thirding your options of calling social services or getting Spouse 1 a therapist who is trained in dealing with hoarders.
posted by Leezie at 5:51 PM on April 25, 2012

Response by poster: I must reiterate, counseling/therapy/Social Services is not an option. It was one of my first thoughts and, for private reasons, not a viable option. Which is why this situation is delicate.
posted by Foam Pants at 6:18 PM on April 25, 2012

Agree with everyone above. As an interim step, do you think it would be well received if you tell Spouse #1 that you know Spouse #2 could probably still dance circles around you, but you do worry sometimes his/her surefootedness, and since they've been so great to you and you've got a bit of a spring energy buzz that you need an outlet for, you wonder if you could return the generosity they've shown you by coming over sometime with a coffeecake and a new big band record (or This American Life podcast or whatever, I recommend Act Two of this one, about the snowman, I can say no more) while you help reorganize things for an hour or so, just so Spouse #2 won't trip if they're not paying attention? If you can pull it off in a cute way, tell Spouse #1 that it'll be "your secret" what you're really doing. I only suggest this since they've let you in before, which to me is a huge indication of trust, and I'd carefully phrase that your goal is not a wholesale disruption of the current order of things... which I agree is best left to the professionals.
posted by argonauta at 6:25 PM on April 25, 2012

If therapy isn't an option then there is nothing you can do.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:45 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend reading the book, "Stuff." Can't remember the author, but it should be easy enough to find, with such a stark (and telling) title. My husband's mother is a hoarder, and this book was a tremendous eye-opener for me. It's compassionate, but chilling, in its exploration of the deep and varied psychological roots of this behavior. Not everyone hoards for the same reason, but the result is almost universal: addressing the symptoms (the mess) does not solve the root cause, and you will only have to repeat the clearing ad infinitum, often at great distress or damage to the hoarding person.
posted by clever sheep at 7:17 PM on April 25, 2012

If getting counseling for Spouse #1 is not an option, then what about counseling for the second spouse?

Get the books Sidhedevil recommends, and give them as a gift to the couple.

Read up on the disorder yourself, call social services so you can get access to resources and information, for yourself and your neighbors.
posted by annsunny at 7:19 PM on April 25, 2012

My family has tended towards this sort of thing a lot, probably only saved by a certain level of taste and frugality and a lot of attic space.

Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive are both interesting watches, coming from that position, but I think the way Hoarders takes stuff on is just kind of mind-bendingly dumb. The chances of having a lasting cleanout happen over a couple days? You might as well play the lottery. However, #1 could probably still learn a few things from that, vis a vis: Shopping is an addiction, and it needs to be treated like an addiction. Even if outside help is not an option, it means that #1 should not be going to garage sales anymore, or thrift stores. There needs to be a commitment to bringing in no more stuff than goes out. Without that commitment, there is no possible solution to the problem. Once you've at least got a commitment to not adding to the problem, then you can start making some progress.

What we've started doing with one family member is going over there and sorting stuff. Not doing a lot of hauling-out, but sorting. Finally giving the family member who has trouble with buying too much and getting rid of too little an idea of just how much they have, and what, and in a way I think it'd helped by providing a sense of everything old being new again--they can get certain thrills from re-discovering old treasures, from actually putting things to use that they thought lost forever. If every time you go through a box, its contents reduce by 10%, eventually the possessions get down to a manageable level, and it seems to get somewhat easier every time. The first round, you get rid of almost nothing, but it's a matter of getting used to the process and getting stuff into safe storage containers. But it has to be ongoing. You can't go in and do it once and have it be done. I had to start doing this myself, even, once I started recognizing my own tendency to follow in those footsteps... and now it's gotten quite easy, so long as I'm not worrying about more than a box or so at a time, but it took a long time to get past the knee-jerk first "BUT I MIGHT NEED THAT."

That said: If #2 is in a position where the house is becoming a danger, and #1 will not modify behavior, IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW UNHAPPY IT MAKES THEM, you need to contact adult protective services. That means if there's signs of mold, bugs, rodents, non-working utilities, or piles that could in some way cause #2 to trip and fall or have something fall on him/her that s/he could not remove. It doesn't matter if it damages your relationship with them, it doesn't matter if that's not the tactic they want, there are some things you are probably not equipped to fix, and you need to prioritize health and safety over feelings. This sounds very borderline, to me, but you're the one there to see if it's really just dust and crowding or if it's actually perilous. Once you get into things like mold or roaches, this problem becomes way bigger than you can tackle without outside help. This fortunately did not happen in my family, but it did happen to a family friend. She was a lovely woman, but she nearly died, and her house had to be almost rebuilt to be habitable again once she'd moved into a nursing home.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:22 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

If the home is a life-threatening danger to one of the human beings living in it, any "private" or "delicate" matters kind of go right out the window. None of that will matter if non-hoarder falls and declines into non-existence because of the mess :(
posted by batmonkey at 8:50 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you offer to help "clean and organise"? You may still end up with nowhere to turn around in the hallway, but at least you can make the piles safer and give everything a vacuum. You'll probably have to commit to coming back weekly to "clean and organise" again, but it sounds like you might be willing to do that.
posted by kjs4 at 9:02 PM on April 25, 2012

Randy O. Frost (author of Stuff, mentioned a couple of times above) also has a practical guide for de-hoarding called Buried In Treasures. It's targeted at both hoarders, and the people who are trying to help them de-hoard.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:56 PM on April 25, 2012

Can you clear out one room for the non hoarding spouse that everyone agrees is just for them? Call if an office or a hobby room.
posted by fshgrl at 12:40 AM on April 26, 2012

Have not read this book, but found it on Amazon while looking at other recommended books: Digging Out. It says it specifically offers solutions for friends and family who want to help a hoarder who isn't open to changing.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:17 AM on April 26, 2012

Another vote for Stuff, which is excellent.

You say that #2 was previously able to keep this in check. How, specifically, did they do that? Can you ask them how? Can you offer to be their hands and legs, and carry out specific orders from them? If they had a way of dealing with this, I would figure out what that way was first.
posted by pie ninja at 5:34 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Changing the behavior is a long term goal. The short term goal is to make life bearable and safe. You can have clean hoarders, or messy hoarders. Go for clean. Don't ask them to throw stuff out (unless it's actually trash or a health hazard) just yet. Go to Target, and buy containers by the truckload. Pack it up, but leave it in their reach. Do they have a basement or garage? Shove it out of the way.

The hoarder is overwhelmed. They probably try to organize themselves, but their need for organization is going to be at a level that leads them in circles where they never get things done, can't move on. Just go in and put all the cloth things together, wrap the delicate things in paper towels, like with like, labels on the outsides of the Rubbermaids so you know what is where easily.

It's not a lasting solution unless you are willing to invest time on an ongoing basis, but it can buy you some time.
posted by instead of three wishes at 5:52 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My suggestion vis a vis Social Services was actually for YOU. Call them and ask for their advice on how to handle this situation, and tell them that therapy is not an option for the people in question. I don't believe you need to give them any identifying information.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:14 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is commendable that you want to help and that you want to be sensitive and respect whatever private matter rules out therapy and external help at this point. But you may want to consider this.

As people age and become more frail or as illnesses progress and the need for care increases it is not unusual that things need to happen that the people in question would not normally want to happen. Often short-term relief comes in the form of involving external help. When that is no longer enough people often end up moving in with family or into homes. And it is normal that the people in need of care refuse all help initially saying they are coping when they are not.

It is unclear at what point your neighbours are but it could well be that they are reaching a point where they will have to accept outside help in the short to medium term. But whatever this private matter is that prevents appropriate help from being involved at this point the time will come when the safety and welfare of people becomes the overriding concern.

And you need to be realistic about what you can achieve here as well liked neighbour, which is probably very little. You can probably go back and rearrange some piles and get rid of another 5 garbage bags every now and then but that is probably it. It may be that the best thing you can do is stay in close contact with them and monitor how bad the hoarding is getting and how much the other spouse is suffering so you can get appropriate support involved when things really do get dangerous.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:08 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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