Senior Living Q&A;: Dealing with a hoarder

Q. I recently visited my dad out of state and was shocked to see the state of his house. Apparently he has become a hoarder. What can I do to help him?

This problem has gained wider visibility in recent years, thanks in part to several hoarding-related television shows. Hoarding’s effects can extend beyond an overstuffed home. It can put people’s health at risk. It can affect surrounding neighborhoods. And treating it requires more than a big box of trash bags.

Experts usually draw the line between a messy lifestyle and hoarding when it comes to the person’s ability to function. If they’re no longer able to cook meals in their own home, if they can’t live safely in their own home, if the household is a threat to others due to sanitation and health issues, that’s where the experts say it crosses the line between messy and hoarding.

People may hoard objects for many reasons, including:

An intense emotional attachment to objects that others see as trivial. They’d feel a sense of major loss if they had to throw this stuff away.

A sense that many items have an intrinsic value, like others might see in artwork.

The assumption that an item might be useful someday, which compels them to save far more than the drawer of hinges, thumbtacks, string, and rubber bands that many of us keep.

Most people who hoard won’t seek help on their own, and they will probably resist help. It’s a very difficult syndrome to break. I think you want to keep in mind that no amount of shaming or pleading with him is really going to change the issue. It’s important for hoarders to realize they’re causing other people harm and stress.

When it comes to chronic and severe problems — like drug use, bipolar disorder, severe depression, or hoarding — even with the best of treatment, a lot of people will still be struggling.

The first step is an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This treatment teaches people to see the objects around them in a new light and to change their hoarding behaviors. CBT sessions can help a hoarding client make more reasonable judgments when deciding if an object is worthy of keeping or not, learn how to make quick decisions on whether to keep an object or toss it, and practice discarding items while sorting through the intense emotions they trigger.

Since most hoarders don’t seek help — and those who do tend to have trouble changing — experts often also focus on an approach called “harm reduction.” This can help cut down on vermin, fire hazards and other threats to the hoarder and the community.

Harm reduction, as applied to hoarding, assumes that the behavior will continue, and as long as the behavior continues, we try to design a plan that reduces the risk that the person and the community face from the behavior.

Pairing a mental health professional with a professional organizer can be helpful. An organizer can guide people toward understanding the benefits of changing their habits, then set goals to help them tame the mess.

When you put people in touch with their goals, then you have something to work with. Then you can say [to the hoarder], “I thought we were working toward this goal. Does keeping this item help you toward your goal?”

NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, email it to or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.

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