Three actions to take when a family member is hoarding

Educate yourself through the "harm reduction" approach

Educate yourself about the “harm reduction” approach


You have helped your loved one clean out her entire house twice. Walking once again through the sea of boxes, clothes and papers, you can’t imagine how anyone could live under these conditions. The smell has returned. And yet she states there is no problem and that she is “taking care of it.” It gets to the point where you can’t communicate with her anymore and no one is coming over to the house. The family is divided: some want to intervene with professionals, some want to let her be, and some have cut themselves off from the family.

The stress of a loved one’s hoarding can be overwhelming. Where do you start? You can begin by doing one or more of these actions:

1) Educate YOURSELF about hoarding. A book that specifically addresses a loved one’s response to hoarding is:

Digging Out, Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding & Compulsive Acquiring by Michael A. Tompkins, Ph.D. and Tamara L. Hartl, Ph.D.

This book takes what is called a “harm reduction approach.” Since hoarding individuals are often not self-aware and don’t realize the severity of their problem, they won’t “see” the problem that others see. That is because hoarding is a mental illness. What can be done with harm reduction is to provide a safe living environment, even if the underlying hoarding problem cannot be acknowledged or solved in the short term.

2) Join a support group for YOURSELF. Hoarding brings up the issue of boundaries. Family members need to recognize that their involvement does not give them the right to make decisions as to how their family member will live. It DOES, however, give them the right to set boundaries for themselves, e.g. “I will give you x dollars toward resolving the hoarding problem (storage unit fees, professional organizer, cleaner, therapy, etc). That is my limit.” Family members do have a right to express their concerns, e.g. “I’m concerned for your safety and your situation causes me to worry.”

There are monthly support groups located right here in Minneapolis and St. Paul, for loved ones of hoarding individuals and people who hoard, facilitated through The Hoarding Project.

3) Be a support to your loved one AS A FAMILY MEMBER, not as a house cleaner. Focus on being a daughter, a son, a niece, a brother. Build trust by working on that relationship. As you build trust, express your concerns for the loved one’s safety. Slowly introduce concepts you have learned (through steps #1 and #2 above) and weave them into conversations about safety.

It seems like the right thing to do, but in most cases responding to a multi-layered problem like hoarding by focusing on cleaning up the mess is not effective. Hoarding is a mental illness, and chronic cluttering is often caused by mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Those issues cannot be eradicated overnight and neither can a hoarding or cluttering situation.

Educate yourself, get support, and focus FIRST on creating a positive and trusting relationship with your loved one.