17 suggestions to help you deal with a hoarder

Nothing’s worse than dealing with a family member that has a mental illness.  If this story helps one other family, then my goal for writing about this personal family plight has been exceeded.

My guess is our story is similar to many others with a relative inflicted with this OCD, (Overly Compulsive Disorder) condition of hoarding. For those of you who’ve never experienced such a situation take a look, it’s not pretty!

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My parents remained married 42 years. We believe our Dad kept our mother’s illness, at bay, as much as possible.  Finally, he couldn’t take her or the disease any longer.  They were two good people, who were of the generation that had no use for therapy.  If you were strong, you solved your problems.  They divorced, and Mom became her worst enemy.

For over 25 years, she didn’t let any of her four children in her home. Except my younger brother, who had to go in to make minor repairs.  Her place was so uninhabitable that she couldn’t get a plumber to enter the premises.  Several times, the family faced her eviction. We scrambled to try and make her place appear less of a disaster.  Reasoning with her over and over…talking to the wind.

The insidious nature of this illness is impossible to grasp.  If you’ve never seen it or had to deal with it.

All three of my brothers are neat, smart, successful parents and people, in general.  All four of us went to Catholic schools and did well in academics and sports.  Mom was an integral part of our life, being as it was. In many ways, our parents did an exceptional job and for all intense purposes, it looked like we had a great life.

My parents played golf and won tournaments at the country club. They both played Bridge and Gin Rummy together.  They had friends, and my Mom volunteered at our Catholic church.  No one else in our entire extended family has any propensity to hoard.

Having to deal with someone with this illness, has been challenging and destructive.

Here’s an article describing the toll – “Kids in the Cross-Hairs of a Hoarding Disorder.”

The challenge of getting her doctor on-board to help with the proper medications. Getting her into an assisted care facility was a journey that changed us all forever.  We saved her life, but she still resents it.

The world of medicine is divided and unsure of what works and what doesn’t.  Some professionals refer to hoarding as an OCD condition and others definitely do not.  Check this article out from The Scientific American:  REAL World Hoarding

If you were to look at my Mom or speak to her, you’d find she’s strong, articulate, smart and in complete denial. She loves gardening, birds, animals in general and her family.  She’s famous for saying – “the good Lord blessed me with four great children!”

To this day, she resents that her adult kids for taking her out of what was a fire trap. Her home was uninhabitable with no working bathtub/shower and a broken heating system. When we were able to move her, she hadn’t showered in days and had a shower cap on for warmth.  She looked like a street person.  I remember taking her to the beauty salon and how different she looked when I picked her up!  The change in her appearance that day was shocking!

With social services, her Medicaid representative and Ombudsman case manager, we’ve managed her care.  We might have to put her elsewhere, but we’re hoping she goes on her own – before her mind and illness prevail.

PLEASE don’t get the wrong impression, my three siblings and I love her. Any child loves their mom, but her disease has infiltrated into every fiber of our lives.  Imagine having to deal with an adult, who acts like a cagey rat in a way.  The last time my younger brother and I were in her home, it struck me why this disease is – “HOARDING.”

There were trails, as narrow as your foot, with piles 5-6 high blocking any natural light, on both sides of you.  She was wondering around, as if in some trance, finding things to throw in a box – to take with her.  I’m sure, she was afraid and angry as well.  She had hoarded in her home for over twenty years. Her precious family photos buried deep under her piles.  There was nothing on her walls.  Trying to keep our wits about us and bargain with her, was a tightrope like I’ve never experienced. On other occasions, when we had to move her, my older brother had to run out of the house – to vomit.

See the thing is, we had to get her moved for her safety, and she is stubborn, prideful and deathly afraid of change.  Giving up her medications to staff, people coming and going in her personal space, set her off.  A change, you can’t imagine.

I’m guessing, if you’re reading this story, you either know someone or work with them.  Maybe, you’re curious.  Trying to figure out what to do and how to handle someone with this disease, has ripped our family apart.  The bottom line is nothing we would have done or said, would have altered her behavior. We weren’t in charge, and it was her personal nightmare.

My brother and his wife, who’ve been closest have suffered the most collateral damage.

Hoarding Picture

What do the experts know about hoarding?  It doesn’t appear to be much.  From the articles we’ve read and input we’ve received, it’s a severe psychological disease.  They still don’t know how to fix or treat it, especially in the elderly.

The brain is still quite the mystery!

Yes, there are exceptions, but most never get hold of this destructive, dangerous disease.  We’ve read the underlying causes, which they think has a lot to do with a sense of loss and depression.  That makes sense to us. When we take a look-back, her condition accelerated upon her divorce.

My mom’s whole identity was in being a mother of four, someone’s wife, feeling needed.  But, when she lost her husband to divorce, we believe she went over to the dark side.  She wasn’t alone.  This disease destroys lives: Hoarding a compulsive mental disorder

Do I have any advice for others? I’d never assume to know what will work for others, but if this helps – why not?

17 Suggestions to Help Cope with a Hoarder:

Get photos of their home, so their doctors will take you and the disease.  People need to see the severity of your problem. When it comes to gray areas, everyone tries to pass the buck.  When speaking, use terms such as – “symptomatic behavior.”

Keep your emotions in check and work with anyone in a position to help you. Don’t attempt to talk the loved one into changing.  You are wasting your breath.

Work with the doctors to get the right cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.  They live in a state of constant anxiety.  Everyone needs different meds.

The CHAOS is like a meth addict who feels his drugs are gone.  Their possessions are their drugs, more important to them, than life itself.  It’s a miracle, my mother didn’t burn up in her home, but she was NOT going to throw anything out.  She had space heaters on piles inches away from clothing and papers.
Don’t give up!  We did a family intervention with her primary care doctor and got her to listen to us and help us with her issue.  You see, my mom is functional, on so many levels and sharp as a fox.  We wanted her safe, and in a place that felt like home to her.

Remember, some of the biggest challenges for hoarders, are trespassers.   Think of it – like a rat – they are completely out of control. Hoarders find things and bring them home and stack them on top of their previous goodies. They repeat this habit, over and over and over.  Think of it in fast motion and you’ll get the picture.  If mom wanted a backpack at a garage sale – she’d buy 6.  We found eight-gallon bottles of bleach in her carport.

Being a hoarder, doesn’t eradicate their love for you or the rest of their family.  Like cancer or any illness – they need drugs to cope.

If they’re 60+, the chance of getting them to admit they have issues, and or go to a therapist – is slim to none.

The impulse to hoard permeates, it overrides the need for social interaction, conversation. So many things we mentally healthier individuals, take for granted.

When you speak to them, try and focus on reassuring them, that you love them and want to help.  Think of them as sad, scarred and incapable of sifting through their situation.

Remember, everyone internalizes this kind of issues different.

For the family member that has been close, i.e., in the same town with the hoarder, they will most likely have PTSD. (Postpartum Traumatic Stress Disorder.  They’ll have lost an ability to be as calm.

Keep the faith, we did prevail – for now!  The best thing we managed to do was to get professionals on our side.  My mom is up in the Seattle area, so we sought out Evergreen Mental Health.

We also received help from Medicaid.  (For more info on help with Medicaid click here) She, in turn, went to her OMBUDSMAN representative to intervene in her care.

Remember – mental illness is not contagious!  When someone you LOVE is a hoarder, doesn’t mean you should feel SHAME or a degree of RESPONSIBILITY.

There have been countless times when our family felt she might end up on the street.  Many times, she refused to come out or speak to us, except through her peephole.

She’s our mom, the one who baked us brownies took us to school sports and activities. Raised us to be caring, loving and responsible Catholics.

It’s an impossible thing to get your head around at times.  Try to disassociate the behavior from the person!

They didn’t ask to get this disease. Anymore than someone with cancer would choose it.
If you’re all alone in this situation, seek help.
There are support groups out there to help.

Someone has lived in this condition, secluded, their social skills suffer.  Imagine the horror for a hoarder of moving away from their “cave” and into a group living situation!

One day, my Mom turned to me and asked; “how on earth, did these people get the idea that I was a hoarder? – Who told them that?”  I remember shaking my head and asking her – “did she come to your home – Mom?   Well, there you go!”  Denial is a given.  Like any other mental illness, this is the most difficult part of the equation.

My mom would never have gotten better without getting professionals involved.  It took a village to help her adjust to living around other seniors.  It is a never ending life management situation.

To this day, dealing with her getting along in the dining room, allowing others to help, is on-going.

YOU HAVE TO BE AN ADVOCATE for them. Many people prefer to look away.  Even the people who are health providers and aware of this quite common issue!  There are advocates out there: Hoarding Disorder Advocates

The most helpful advice I can give you is to find a mental health mentor.

I was lucky to have the financial resources and a supportive husband to help me seek a therapist.  She helped us navigate within the health care system. She also helped me sort through my child-like emotional responses.  The demanding, needy mentally ill individual that happened to be Mom.

The natural response is to think – why me?  Why do I have a mom like this?  What did I do wrong to deserve this?

NOTHING – you didn’t cause someone you love to hoard.  You are not the reason for all the psychological damage inflicted, as a result.

Articles worth reading:

Elderly Hoarding: Tips on How to Deal with Diogenes Syndrome
Hoarding and the Elderly: How to Help Them De-clutter
When Hoarders Make Life Miserable for Others

We tried to hire an organization specialist.  It never got off the ground.  My mother wanted nothing to do with anyone in this capacity, around her.

My brother, who lives closest to Mom, now has the task of going into her tiny studio.  He tells her he is getting rid of her recycle. Which means, newspapers, Styrofoam cups, butter patties, straws, brochures, anything she hoards that week.  Do you get the picture?   It’s going to be an ongoing issue – till she passes.

At 87 – we have little hope of her ever grasping her condition or changing.

She’s as happy now, as we’ve seen her in years.  We feel blessed for the help we’ve received in reaching this current situation.

We have her on drugs that have made a huge difference in her being agitated with others.  But she will never relate to others the way you and I would.  She will always, be antisocial.  There have been so many disappointments/hardships with this issue.  Many more than one can ever discuss.

It’s such a personal, painful problem and one that begs the question – WHY?

How can someone who used to clean other people’s homes.  After her divorce, my mom had zero work experience.  She grew up on a dairy farm and received no more than a high school education. How could she NOT SEE the situation?

Because it’s a MENTAL ILLNESS, her ability to make decisions, her reasoning isn’t right.

Help for hoarders is hard to find. But if you stay diligent, focused on problem-solving, things can be manageable.

Do you fix it – NO, almost never.  People get help and do make huge recoveries.   It’s about the severity and age afflicted.

My mom raised four intelligent, family oriented, successful, kind adults.  She now has nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She has plenty to be proud of and for our mental health – we try to focus on that!

Here’s hoping you find the courage within, to keep on keeping on.  If life has put you close to a hoarder, I hope this has helped.