What services does my father need to address hoarding/clutter?
September 21, 2021 2:58 AM   Subscribe

My father's house is a mess. He is 67 years old and is almost certainly what you would call a hoarder. It’s not a “newspapers to the ceiling” situation but my sister and I are definitely concerned about his safety (i.e. tripping) and we want him to be able to have family, friends, etc able to come visit. My sister and I are out of state and trying to help him line up professionals to help him take control of the house.

What are the services that he needs? Certainly he needs a hoarder cleanup service to debulk and remove a ton of extra stuff, and once it gets under control he'll need a weekly house cleaner as well to clean bathrooms, kitchen, etc. But in between those two things, he also needs someone to help him figure out workflows, where his mail goes when he comes in the door, etc. Is this something a professional organizer does? Is there another type of service that is helpful in this situation?

For what it's worth, he is generally supportive of this (acknowledges that it needs to be done and isn't overly embarrassed about it) and money is not an issue.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A counselor/therapist to explore how this may have happened and to address any thought patterns/emotional work necessary to prevent backsliding once the initial muck out is complete, if he’s open to it. CBT seems to be the gold standard approach so far.
posted by blue suede stockings at 3:10 AM on September 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Clutterers Anonymous has 12-step style support groups for clutterers and information for concerned friends and family. (I have no personal experience with this group; they're on a resource list for an agency I volunteer with.)
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 4:05 AM on September 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yes, this is a thing professional organizers do!
posted by DarlingBri at 4:19 AM on September 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

If he’s on board with throwing stuff away and thus willing to have a clean out service come and able to supervise and direct things, that’s ideal. But if he has psychological hoarding tendencies (which can worsen with age) you probably need to take over managing the cleanup yourself. As in go there and hire a junk removal service, but you guide their work and *you* put it all out on the street. The hard part is going to be convincing him to part with a critical mass of junk. A stranger on a time clock is unlikely to be able or willing to argue over every carton.

I was once a mover and worked for a company that took hoarder cases, usually evictions alas. I’ve never forgotten the horror of that job. They didn’t usually want us there, if the hoarding resident was even present. Sometimes they’d even have violent reactions. We dreaded those jobs, even without the smells and vermin.

I just helped an elderly relative close up a house to move into a much smaller assisted living situation. They were not a “hoarder” but some of that just seems to go with aging. So they kept a lot of useless old stuff and it took a long time to go through it and slowly convince them they didn’t need to keep every old pair of shoes, in their original boxes, from 40 years of shoe buying. But they ended up keeping a good 20 pairs because it wasn’t worth it to argue them down further.

Get a storage unit and put as much as you can there immediately. Then start bringing things from then unit back to the home, one box at a time, and sorting through it with the resident, would be advice for “mild hoarding syndrome of advancing age.”
posted by spitbull at 4:55 AM on September 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Good luck. I tried to help my father and his first excuse was "that's a project for when I retire" and then once he retired he stopped letting people in the house. When he died in the house we had to deal with it, and it was daunting. So you may possibly need to get him to accept professional help from a therapist. But hopefully he will just finding it daunting and accept help from a decluttering professional.
posted by Hey, Zeus! at 6:36 AM on September 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Good luck! It's not going to be easy. It's one thing for him to say he recognizes it and wants to change, it's another to be confronted with the dumpster if there is a pain he is covering with the hoard. I think you'll have the best long-lasting success with an approach that targets helping him be more clean and organized and addressing the psychological need to hoard. If you don't get him therapy, you'll be shocked at how quickly the hoard returns. He may very well just be unorganized and unable to clean himself, so the worst is that the therapist discovers there is no underlying psychological cause, but please get him to talk to someone about it.
posted by archimago at 7:50 AM on September 21, 2021

I don’t have experience of professional organizers, however, would just like to say that whoever does this should not impose a system that doesn’t work with his way of doing things. My dad has hoarding tendencies. My brother tried to do something with drawers and labels, but my dad ignored that. It was much more effective to follow his habits, and just keep things tidy with regular upkeep. Eg he likes to hang his clothes for the day/week on two chairs (one for pants, one for shirts), no sense in putting things away in a closet. Ditto for eg ointments, Tylenol etc, he likes them laid out on a table where he can see them.

So I am there about three times a week, and I clean something every time I go. That way it’s just part of the routine. With this frequency I can more easily eg chuck newspapers out when he’s in the bathroom (have to be sneaky sometimes. Never with sentimental things, but paper, junk mail, expired food, yes).

I don’t think this is in the scope of what eg PSWs do. A cleaner might, but it’d be good if that person had some sensitivity around this issue. You might be able to hire a student in eg occupational therapy or nursing to come in a few times a week.

(We were only able to clear everything out during a brief hospitalization, fwiw, hopefully therapy would be helpful for your dad for the initial cleanout.)

Lastly, just want to say, start thinking ahead. If you guys are out of state, it’s going to be hard to manage more complicated issues should they occur. Like think about either moving him closer to you (at least in the same state) or get to know the services closer to him. Ideally he’d be in your same state so you could handle things expeditiously, even if you’re not hands-on on a daily or weekly basis.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:56 AM on September 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I was in college in the pre-covid era, I worked part time helping someone clear out several lifetimes worth of stuff. I felt like I was basically being paid to be a grandkid. I think that's your missing person.

He had a separate person who came and cleaned the whole house and did laundry. I helped haul heavy things (which I could have moved on my own, but he wanted to do it himself but knew better), I made lunch and we ate it together, I threw out years-expired condiments that were "still good". I went with him to storage units. I took things home. I found the original blueprints for the house from 50+ years prior while shredding boxes and boxes of old documents, which he then used when remodeling the house. I helped with yard work. I posted things to Craigslist. I helped with the emotional work of getting rid of things. I ran errands. I'm pretty sure that me showing up for work meant that he got out of bed before noon. I learned a lot of stories.
posted by aniola at 8:40 AM on September 21, 2021 [21 favorites]

This happens quite easily as a person loses energy. Cleaning, organizing, responding to mail, taking stuff to the thrift shop, etc, take a lot of time and energy. It can be difficult for an older person to adapt successfully to not having the energy to keep up. All those projects and ideas may never happen, and that's hard to accept. Lack of energy may be a sign of depression, and can involve some obsession/compulsion.

Cotton dress sock and others are so right about respecting his wishes and ways of doing stuff. Habits are harder to change at 67, and it's his stuff/life. I would be thrilled to find someone like aniola to help me organize stuff, get stuff to the thrift store, help move things I used to be able to move on my own. Focus on making sure things are clean enough, functional, accessible, and not getting rid of stuff like trophies and too many rubber bands. His home doesn't have to be minimal, clutter is not a moral failing. Too much getting rid of can feel like an attack. Take the time to listen if he tells stories about his stuff and his life. Getting old and having family far away can be very lonely, and loneliness is as much a killer as falls.

Start with safety. One or more grab bars in the shower, non-slip decals on the shower/tub floor. Grip tape on outside steps (may need to be tacked down). Throw rugs benefit from non-slop padding; they can be a real tripping hazard. These things are all a good idea for young people, who fall in the shower, too.
posted by theora55 at 9:11 AM on September 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

Nthing what aniola and theora55 say.
My mother was overwhelmed by all the stuff that accumulated over the 20+ years she lived in her house. She was a lifelong collector of both valuable things (valuable to other collectors), and just stuff that only she saw any value in - enough to fill several rooms. Not like in a TV show but bad enough for me and most and make 3/4 quarters of the house unusable and unsafe.
The only person she allowed to help her reduce stuff was a neighbour, a teenage girl, who came several times a week. I found the pace frustrating, nothing was discarded without close inspection, and stuff i wanted her to toss eg. yoghurt cups, old screws and nails, buttons from old clothes, scraps of fabric, old yarns, old shoes, coats, tools, cheap old toys she bought at fleamarkets was carefully 'archived'. Most stuff she kept, but at least it was sorted and labeled.

I advise strongly against a forced and fast clearing out.
Focus on safety, eg. floor space, bathroom functionality, kitchen, bed, enough tidyness so cleaner can come regularly.
If possible contain the stuff he collects to unused room(s) and offer/find help to Sort at his pace. It sounds like he is open to at least let go of some stuff.

The hoarder shows in TV use a lot of humiliation and pressure. Don't.

It is true, after my mothers death in Dec 19, i had to pay someone to clean everything out. But it was better than humiliating her.
posted by 15L06 at 10:10 AM on September 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

PS the book i found most helpful is Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost.
posted by 15L06 at 10:19 AM on September 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you are in the US, he may be able to get services through his state's Department of Human Services for his disability to help with cleaning and organization ongoing - your state may have a Disability Hub, or you may just have to call DHS and deal with their nightmare phone tree. However, if he's able to pay out of pocket then that will make things a lot easier. I think that professional organization services are a great idea here - please just keep in mind that, like with dating or so many other things, the first one may not be the right match and it's okay to switch and try another if so.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:58 AM on September 21, 2021

I just had a family friend whose neighbor called the city on her- she was clearly hoarding both inside and out (I never saw her house, and didn't know the extent of it.) We live in Boston, and I am very impressed with how the city handled the situation. Inspectional Services came and toured the house, and then had the office of elder affairs help. The person's only child was contacted and included in all the steps. The house was condemned, and the person was not allowed to return- it was made clear they would be arrested if they tried. The person was first put up in a hotel (which was paid for by family), and the city gave the person a few options of a mental health program where they would stay overnight and be evaluated, but also be allowed to carry on their daily activities, but also their hoarding will be kept an eye on- they won't be allowed to bring anything in. The place the person selected is some sort of senior housing place, that has health care as well. The house is going to be cleaned, all stuff is to be removed, then renovated and returned to a livable space. The city covers this work by placing a lien on the house for when it sells. Here is a link to the MassHousing's Hoarding Resources- some cover the United States, not just Massachusetts.
posted by momochan at 1:34 PM on September 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

If this was in the UK, you'd need three things:

(1) occupational therapist - finds out what's going on, supportively sources appropriate help
(2) professional declutterer - works sensitively with person, not only doing recycling, giving to charity and throwing out but putting in place storage and other solutions the person can easily maintain
(3) 1 or 2 or you get a regular cleaning service to come on a schedule once house is fit for the cleaners to work

Maybe someone knows what the US equivalents are?
posted by Flitcraft at 3:29 PM on September 21, 2021

I don't have an answer to your question about what type of helper to hire, but I'd like to suggest one thing that has helped me and family members with hoarding tendencies: make use of the ease of taking photos and videos with a smartphone. It can be easier to part with stuff that has memories attached if you have a visual record of it.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 6:56 PM on September 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

He is 67 and isn't going to adapt to any "workflows". You and your sister, when/if safe, need to visit him for a week and describe the lay of the land to him: his hoarding is increasing his risk of tripping and breaking his neck, and also, you're just going to chuck most of it when he's dead, which is statistically soon. So let's work together, now, as a family, for the best outcome. Which is going to involve a massive chuck, which he should be paying for.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:49 PM on September 21, 2021

The main thing I've learned from watching reality shows about hoarders, reading articles, and reading the book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, that 15L06 mentioned is that hoarding usually comes from a traumatic experience, generally a loss. The hoarder compensates for the loss by replacing the the person/items/whatever with a collection of stuff.

The only way to solve the problem is to first address the trauma and then the hoarder can handle their hoarding.

Like any other behavior engaged in by a person trying to escape from trauma, I believe the only effective solution is to find a counsellor who can address the underlying trauma and find a better way to deal with it than hoarding.
posted by bendy at 11:53 PM on September 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

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