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When A Loved One Hoards

By David F. Tolin, Ph.D. author of Buried In Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding.

In our hoarding clinic and research program, one of the most common inquiries I get goes something like this: “My [mother, father, sibling, friend, spouse, etc.] has a terrible hoarding problem. But he/she doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s a problem, and isn’t interested in doing anything about it. How can I make him/her see that this is a problem and get the help he/she so badly needs?”

The short answer: In most cases, you can’t. That is, assuming that your loved one is an adult who is legally competent to manage his/her own affairs (meaning he/she has not been declared incompetent by a judge and appointed a legal guardian), and the clutter is not immediately life-threatening, he/she has the right to hoard, even though the hoarding might have terrible consequences for his/her quality of life.

The long answer: Even though in most cases you can’t make the person do anything, you can alter your approach to minimize the likelihood of getting a defensive or “stubborn” reaction. Often, it’s tempting to start arguing with the person, trying to persuade them to see things the way you do. This kind of direct confrontation rarely works. We find that the best way to help people increase their motivation to work on the problem is to start with three key assumptions:

  1. Ambivalence is normal.
  2. People have a right to make their own choices.
  3. Nothing will happen until the person is ready to change.

Here are some general principles to guide your conversations:

Show Empathy. Showing empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with everything the person says. But it does mean you are willing to listen and to try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

Don’t Argue. There is simply no point in arguing about hoarding. The harder you argue, the more the person is likely to argue back. The only solution is to get out of the argument.

Respect Autonomy. Remember, most of you are dealing with an adult who has freedom of choice about his or her own possessions. Try to engage your loved one in a discussion (rather than an argument) about the home and his or her behavior. Ask your loved one what he or she wants to do, rather than just telling him or her what you want: “What do you think you would like to do about the clutter in the home?” “How do you suggest we proceed?”

Help the person recognize that his/her actions are inconsistent with his/her greater goals or values. Ask the person about his or her goals and values. “What’s really important to you in life?” “How would you like your life to be five years from now?” “What are your hopes and goals in life?” Discuss whether or not the person’s acquiring or difficulty organizing or getting rid of things fit with those goals and values. This is most effective if you ask, rather than tell. “How does the condition of your home fit with your desire to be a good grandmother?” “You’ve told me that friendships are very important to you; how well can you pursue that goal, given the way things are right now?”

If you have been accustomed to arguing and threatening and blaming, your new approaches will surprise your loved one and it may take a little time before the person begins to trust you. Try these methods in several conversations and notice whether the balance seems to be tilting in the right direction. If so, be patient and keep up the good work.

To read more by the authors of Buried in Treasures click here.

Recent Comments

  1. Gladys

    When you are the spouse of a hoarder. What can you do? Is it a self-esteeme thing?
    What is all this stuff suppose to do for them?
    Replace the love they don’t feel they are getting? Respect, sex. What is it that they are really seeking? I’d like to help for both of our sakes but haven’t hit on anything that motivates them to change themselves and/or change their attachment to “their stuff”.

  2. Amanda

    Reading this, I understand on a cognitive level that this is what the hoarder needs, because they won’t even warm up to the idea of treatment without being shown compassion. But what about the needs of the rest of us? As the adult child of a hoarder, with a father who continues to live in the chaos created by my hoarding mother (he’s afraid that she can’t take care of herself), it just feels so hopeless.

    There are two guest bedrooms at their house–I live out of town, but I cannot sleep at their house when I visit. My children will never be able to spend the weekend at grandma’s house, or even the afternoon, because she is a f***ing mess. She’s so sick–I’ve lived with her bipolar disorder and this hoarding most of my life–and I’m tired of her being so needy and yet unwilling to accept help for her problems. Our family has tried empathy, compassion, respect, etc. (which basically amount to denial). Why should We have to continue to suffer for her problems? She needs to hit her bottom–maybe by getting kicked out on her a**? Otherwise it’s like the only way anything is ever going to change is when she dies. Sometimes I just tell myself, “well I’ll be able to clean her house after she’s dead.” I don’t know what to do for my father. There are no hoarding support therapists or support groups where they live. I just feel so desperate and hopeless.

  3. theresa gobin

    i am a hoarder clutter person and i am so emabrrsed with myself that it got so bad no one wanted to come to my house and my friends worried about me .now i have a bopiyfriend living with me trying to do the best he can to deal with what i am now trying to clean up but its hard.i am doing it but i feel it may not be enought .maybe i relize some more what is really needed and what isnt ?i need help and support in this but i dont drive and i live in the country.far from things.

  4. Erinna

    Living with someone who hoards is very frustrating and really breaks your nerves. Getting to admit they have a problem is a real feat and when you do approach them they can get very aggressive and resentful. It is a lot more difficult to help these people because they resist and feel there is nothing wrong with them. Their response is very similiar to a drug addict who does not want to admit they have a problem.

    I am currently living with my in laws as we hope to purchase a house and are saving. Their son hoards and he is still living at home at the age of 38, aside from the hoarding I think he has a terrible attitude problem and thinks his parents will look after him forever. He does not seem to have matured at all emotionally as an adult. What makes it worse we end up doing a lot of the things in the house like any upkeep and cleaning and we have no voice as his mother continues to protect him. This makes it even more frustrating as even though we are the ones who do everything to try and make the home comfortable for the elderly parents, the brother seems to have no concern at all about the effect he has with his hoarding and unreliability, yet his mother gives credit to him which that is undue.I believe she reinforces his behaviour yet, she complains to us about him constantly, this makes it even more and more frustrating to us. The father has had enough but the mother just as she does with us, won’t let him act on it. I really can’t wait to move out of this mad house!

    But even then and after we move out, I can see the distant future and know that we are destined to see 2 older people living in their sons squalor. The brother in Law will live off his parents till they die, most likely if the mother survives the father, brother in law will fill the house with his hoarding and only paths will be left to move around, mother in law will complain to us, but give us no power to do anything. Eventually when she dies which could be because a heap of rubbish has fallen onto her, brother in law will inherit the whole house, as mother in law will think this is the only way left to protect him. Brother in law will be known as the weirdo in the street (if he is not already seen as that) and will rot in his own squalor. Who know’s maybe by then he would have progressed and started to even collect his own shit and urine.

    Sorry, but I am finding it very hard to have any sympathy or tolerance for these people and I am sure any family member faced with a member of their family doing the same feels as frustrated as I do. The hardest thing is knowing and trying to understand that they seem to not recognise not only it is a problem for themselves , but the effect it has on everyone else in the family. They seem to just NOT CARE at ALL!!!

  5. Debra Schrock

    I know what Erinna is going through. My husband’s sister in law has always lived off of her mother and has a severe hoarding problem. She is an adult child and has always manipulated her mother. Now that our dear mother is gone, she thinks that everything belongs to her, even though the will indicates that everything is 50/50. What a laugh, she has not way to maintain the family home and she is verbally abusive to the family members who have tried to help. It is true, you cannot change these people. They need help, but it seems that family members are not able to help these very sick people. I have to stay away from this toxic person. If she continues to stay in the house, it will only decrease in value and the inheritance that my husband has been left will vanish also. These situations are incredibly sick and sad. May God help all of us who have this in our families.

  6. JW

    Its always the same. Treat people who ”hoard” with respect and they are sick. No, they are children who were pandered to. I say just leave them in their mess and find someone reasonable and sanitary.

  7. Elise

    My husband is an antique dealer and has used that occupation as an excuse for his hoarding. Every item in the house HAS to be retained because it belongs to another item that needs to be fixed to be sold. He only admitted yesterday that he is a hoarder after I gave him the definition of a hoarder that I found at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation. I know that this is a first step and that it is very important. I am trying to be very patient with him and not to judge him. I cannot have friends over, our children do not want to come here, the ultimate isolation that I feel is deeply disturbing. He is not making a living because he cannot focus on anything long enough to take it to completion. Everything he buys “needs work” to be sold. We have a house that is filled floor to ceiling in the living room, dining room, guest room, and basement, and he has two storage sheds that are in the same condition. There are narrow paths in the living room and dining room. There is no entry into the guest room without moving things out of the doorway. It is so overwhelming that I feel myself being pulled into a despair that I am having difficulty coming out of…I am disabled and have Rheumatoid Arthritis, I am basically stuck in the house. I actually left for six months thinking he would “wake up.” I returned to filth and squalor that was significantly worse than what I left. He has no health insurance and cannot afford a psychiatrist. He is on prozac and buspar but he sometimes stops taking them. He is also on dexedrine for ADHD that was diagnosed several years ago. He is a recovering alcoholic and has been in recovery for over 25 years. He needs help, I need help. There are no local support groups and I do not have a car because our car is in such a state of disrepair that I cannot drive it. We are entering bankrupty and our income is well below the poverty line. I am looking for support on line, I do not expect and easy or quick fix, I just need to connect with others in the same or similar situation.

  8. AnonAnon


    I am sorry to see that you did not receive a response. I am writing because I know how isolating and stressful it can be to have a loved one (in my case my mother) with this issue, especially during serious financial difficulty. I hope that things have improved for you and your husband in the time since you wrote.

  9. katherine Sloan

    For over a year I have helped my brother who is a hoarder and shopping addict. He had approached me about change so I told him 1 corner at a time (the big picture was too overwhelming) . I developed a plan for his living room w/paint changes and new furniture. Then ironically and tragically he had a house fire. Cause of fire was food left out on gas stove and 1 of his 4 dogs jumped up stove hit the gas knob and resulted in explosion. All 4 dogs died in fire.
    My approach was that his loss was horrible as he is single and the dogs were his kids. The opportunity was presented now was he would have a newly remodeled home all the way down to the studs. I have spent hundreds of hours working w/ reconstruction taking him to the furniture market to get all new furniture at wholesale and recently after many construction delays got him moved in. With upcoming holidays I had to drop the project to focus on my own place.
    I ran by his home to pick up an item and my heart sank not 1 item that had been moved in that did not get put away is right on the floor along w/accumulated mail and ordered packages.
    While I understand the approach is not to shame the hoarder I feel very used and really want to express this to him. He really is the reason 4 helpless animals suffered and died – never taught behavioral and had run of house hence jumping on stove for left out food. The restoration company pulling out all the stuff remarked it was really really bad.
    Over 20 years My father at age 70 built this home for my brother and did huge part of physical labor. My brother didn’t contribute much at helping and at family gatherings or vacations doesn’t volunteer to help with cooking, clean up etc. although he has expressed his sorrow he let his home go after my dad’s efforts I now can’t help but feel there is manipulation going on and I am now his victim. I feel anger and resentment especially now I know how hurtful it had to be for my dad who passed away this year.
    My brother is under a psychiatrist care – I may completely undo the progress but I’m tired of walking on egg shells because of his condition.
    Whatever happens at least this had been cathartic to express my feelings

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