I recently got a great comment from a reader named Sue.  She responded to my post The Case of the Silent Phone part 5, and tells us her experience as the daughter of a hoarder.  Her advice about how to clear out a hoarders home was so valuable, I asked Sue if I could feature her words as a post instead of as a comment.  She also shared photos of her father’s home during her clean up process.  I also appreciate her ideas for helping my daughter learn to sort out her beloved stuffed animals.  If you are facing the overwhelming task of sorting through a compulsive hoarders house, I urge you to learn from Sue’s experience.
Thank you, Sue, for sharing with Not Just Clutter.  I look forward to updates from you.

Guest post: How to Clear out a Hoarders Home

My primary approach dealing with Dad’s house was to put like things together. It was all about categorizing things rather than dealing with them as individual items.
I disagree with some of the standard organizational advice that says to work your way through a pile picking up each item and not putting it down until you make a decision about whether to keep, donate/sell, or toss.  I understand the purpose of that advice, which is to encourage the hoarder to actually think about each item rather than just blindly put it back on the pile where it becomes invisible again.  But I think that there is a better way to approach it, which is to start by focusing on the things that you can decide immediately about.  So I would start (or encourage the hoarder to start) by looking just for things that can be thrown out (or just for things that can be donated, or just for things that have a known place where they belong and can be put away).  I think it’s too overwhelming to try to think about each individual item against the background of a pile or room filled up with hundreds or thousands of equally “individual” items.  I think it works best to 1) first remove as much of the stuff in the pile or room as possible whose fate is EASY to decide: obvious trash, obvious donate things, obvious “put away elsewhere” things.  Then 2) look at the remaining items in the pile or room, and look for the patterns, the categories. 
Hoard in living room

Living Room: notice the partially cleared coffee table, which took a great deal of work just to get that far.

Find Categories

In my Dad’s house the common categories were: books, clothes, keep/sell/give to friends, thrift store, bridge (dad was a bridge teacher and most of the papers in the house were related to that), music (cds and tapes were all over the house), empty boxes, magazines, personal/photos/financial records etc.  I designated a place/pile/room for each category and just plowed through the piles sorting into the new piles.  Thus, all clothing went in one room (after I cleared a bed to have some room to pile clothes), office type supplies went piled on or near the desk, and anything I thought I might want to keep (even to sell later online, etc — anything I wasn’t going to dispose of directly from the house) went into a third room (again, after clearing to have initial room to work). Empty boxes went into the garage.  Just like you would do with an already-organized house, everything needed a place, even just a temporary place.  Sometimes the “place” for lightweight furniture was out on the lawn with a “FREE” sign — I got rid of a lot that way.

Remove Volume Quickly

A secondary rule was to focus on the easiest ways to remove volume from the piles. In dad’s case this meant first pulling CLOTHING and BOXES (mostly empty) from piles that were otherwise mostly paper. Like many hoarders, my dad accumulated boxes, thinking that they would magically solve his organization problem, but instead, they became more OF the problem…  Going through the papers was much more tedious and fiddly — he would have old family photos mixed in with junk mail, so I couldn’t just toss big stacks of junk mail, unless I was willing to risk losing some good stuff with it (and by the end, I did some of that too!). But at first, you want the encouragement of seeing the piles shrink dramatically, by taking out the things that have the most volume to them.  Things that were clearly garbage or recycle or thrift store, I tried to remove as soon as possible, just to open up a little working room!
Compulsive Hoarders Office

The Office: A Nice Roll Top Desk to hide the clutter

Sometimes I would sit down and focus on a certain room or a large pile, one piece at a time. Other times I would bounce around from room to room, each time finding something that “belonged” somewhere else. It seemed to work well to take whichever approach I was in the mood for that day.
I worked my way through the piles this way, sorting into these new piles, until — after many days of this — a semblance of order began to appear.

look for Subset Categories

Then I began to focus on subsets — from among the office supplies I could then see, for example, that there were at least twelve staplers.  A whole moving carton full of pens and pencils.  From among the clothing I stacked pants here, shirts there, and filled a laundry basket to overflowing, just with belts (!!).  Once I could see things organized by categories and how much there was of various things, it was easier for me to decide how to proceed with keep/donate decisions.  I think this would be even more important if the hoarder is participating in the cleanup and some appropriate amounts and types of things are going to be kept for their use.

Set a number limit

I also think it’s important, when helping a hoarder, to establish an agreed-upon appropriate number of each type of item to be kept, just as you mentioned with the stuffed animals for your daughter. When your mom sees, for example, a nice lamp that works, it might be hard for her to decide, as a standalone decision, whether she’s willing to let that particular lamp go.  But if she has already agreed that given the layout of her house, she needs, say, ten lamps, then once she sees, visually all together in one place, that she has thirty lamps, I think it would be easier to pick her ten favorite and be more agreeable (hopefully) to letting the others go.
Piles of Paper

Piles of Paper

I admit that I never tried the above approach with my dad.  His piles were mostly paper and clothing, and I wasn’t able to assemble things in a way to see how many he had of different kinds of clothing because they were too well hidden in the piles or inaccessible due to other piles.  I was only able to get to that point after his death when I had complete freedom to plow through the house and move things around.  But I do think it would be a good approach to take, if a hoarder is able to think rationally about their things (which some can and some can’t, from what I’ve seen).

Focus on the person, not the stuff

I know these things that make sense to us, don’t always work for the person with the hoarding mindset. But there is only so much you can do, if the person is otherwise competent and able to legally make their own decisions. There does come a point where it truly does become easier to wait until the person is gone, rather than argue over every little thing. Sometime you just want to not upset the relationship by always having it focus on the stuff. It all depends on where the person is at mentally and emotionally, and how much help they truly want.

6 Comments

  1. dinah
    Posted November 29, 2012 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    that is a great post! sue didn’t write about dissension from the hoarder or anxiety from the hoarder – i wonder about the best way to deal with that?

    • Rae
      Posted December 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      Great questions, Dinah. Sue cleaned up her Dad’s house after he passed. I don’t have an answer for you about dealing with the anxiety. I know I haven’t been able to manage it well with my own family. I’m guessing a professional therapist would be needed. Hopefully one could stop in here to help answer your questions.

  2. Mary
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I have been having a relationship with a hoarder now for quite a few years and I have used the same approach to his house during this time. It was necessary at first just to find a place for me to be in in that house but I did not start until invited to, and over time understood what he was comfortable with in letting me decide what to throw out on my own. Other than that I would put things aside to let him make the decision. Interesting that the pictures that you posted are very similar to what his house looks like in the type of “hoarding” that is going on.

    However, what I did realize was that I was “helping” him with an organization problem and that he could let go of obvious clutter like junk mail as you pointed out. But eventually we hit the wall and I realized that he didn’t see his house or living situation the way I did and any progress was dismantled for one reason or another, mainly because clutter just didn’t bother him. I also realized that the “organization” help was really churning and did not really lead to a functional outcome. The stuff is still there, the stuff is still useless or unusable, its just organized so that there is more room to move around in. And any organization disappears after awhile as he churns through his stuff or disregards keeping up the order.

    But I am thankful that he does understand that his environment and his “hoarding” is a wall in our relationship. If this is not something that he wants to change then I can’t live with him or be comfortable there. I will remove myself from the stress of the environment and we will have to decide how to have a relationship around this. If that is at all possible. And even if it is, his attachments to that stuff draws him away. In any case he does recognize this and my feelings and is going for professional help. I will keep an open mind and continue to explore where I am at in all of this. Its not easy to be in a relationship like this. No matter how much you want to distance yourself from the negative and focus on the positive it seems to always be there as the “wall”.

    Just a note on “There does come a point where it truly does become easier to wait until the person is gone, rather than argue over every little thing.” I do not advise this as this is a tremendous violation of trust which will destroy any progress that you have made in connecting to the problem with your loved one. I am always mindful that no matter what I think of the “stuff” they are still his things. I focus on what this behavior does to us and let him know my feelings and my perspective and try very hard to be respectful of his.

    Thank you for sharing your story and perspective.

    • Rae
      Posted December 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      Hi Mary, thanks for giving such insight to your situation. It’s beyond difficult, I’m sure.

      Regarding your comment the line “There does come a point where it truly does become easier to wait until the person is gone, rather than argue over every little thing…” In my case, it’s not so much waiting until that person is out of the house, rather waiting until they’ve died. Horrible, I know, to even have to think about that, but it allows you to focus on the “living” and delays the decision making until a time when you won’t meet resistance.

      As for you and your boyfriend, only you know if it’s worth it for you to continue in the relationship. Maybe others in a similar situation can weigh in. I have heard from others with a partner who hoards that the wall does indeed drive a wedge. As a daughter of a hoarder, the relationship dynamic is different, but I definitely feel my Mom has “chosen” her stuff to have a higher priority than me or my sister. That hurts pretty deeply, and can’t be easily fixed.

      The fact that your boyfriend is going to therapy is very encouraging though. It means he has a certain level of self awareness, and that’s major! Please let me know how that process is going for you!

  3. Shel
    Posted November 24, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Tomorrow I embark on a cleanup. It’s my uncles part of the house and he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the way he lives. This is going to be the most stressful few days of my life. Wish me luck!

    • Rae
      Posted November 27, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Oh my goodness, good luck to you. Wear appropriate clothing. Masks, gloves, and I’d even get full body coveralls.
      Does your uncle know this clean up is happening? Is he part of the process? It’s HIGHLY possibly he’ll be incredibly upset with you for doing this, even if it’s meant to help him.

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