Organizing: Sensitive Solutions for Hoarders

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May 07, 2011 | Cris Carl

Cieleke/stock.xchngIf you, a family member or a friend obsessively acquires items that, to others, seem to be worthless or have little value, it’s likely you are dealing with issues of hoarding. Hoarding is a neuropsychological disorder closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Reality television shows focusing on hoarding, while lurid and unrealistic, have brought a little-researched topic into the daily lexicon.

According to Linda Puzan, LICSW, Director of the Elder Protective Services Program, a part of Franklin County Home Care Corporation in western Massachusetts, hoarding has no simple answers. “You usually have to deal with hoarding issues in small steps,” said Puzan. While Puzan exclusively works with elders, hoarding is a disorder that can be present in any age group. “When we come across this (hoarding), it’s never a new issue. It didn’t just crop up,” said Puzan.

“You have to be careful in your judgment of the situation too. One person’s clutter is another person’s immaculate,” Puzan added.  DIY Resource:

Signs of hoarding according to extensive research done by Randy Frost PhD, Smith College professor:


  • Compulsive spending/excessive acquisition. The hoarder is often buried in debt.
  • Difficulty discarding or letting go of possessions.
  • Disorganization and clutter that impairs functioning.

For example, the most common items people hoard include magazines, newspapers, notes and lists. Stacks of these items can fill entire rooms, keeping the person from gaining access to a refrigerator, bathroom, bed or an exit if there were to be an emergency such as a fire.

People who hoard tend to be very secretive, especially if they are conscious of their problem. The more self-aware the person is, the more embarrassed they tend to be. Hoarders do not usually like to have people in their homes and often have little or no social life. Hoarders are often addicted to home shopping networks and searching dumpsters for salvageable materials.

Problems and dangers associated with hoarding:

Puzan said she most often learns of someone with hoarding issues from building managers or emergency medical professionals. “We found an 85-year-old woman one time whose apartment was so full of newspapers, she only had a tiny section of a couch to sleep on,” she said.

Besides debt and antisocial behaviors, the hoarder runs the risk of losing homeowners insurance, eviction, vermin infestation and building condemnation. Some hoarders have so much in one space that the floorboards give away due to the sheer weight.  Any number of health issues can impact the hoarder, some of which could lead to the person’s death. 

Solutions for hoarding?

Puzan said that education and taking a slow, non-judgmental approach with the hoarder is a good start. She recommended books by noted hoarding researcher, Randy Frost PhD, professor at Smith College. Frost’s books include”Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding,” and “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.”  DIY Resource:

“You need to keep the pace comfortable,” said Puzan, warning that cleaning out someone’s house while they are away is the worst possible idea. “Can you imagine coming home from the hospital or somewhere and all of your belongings have been moved, cleaned, or thrown away? It’s much worse for someone who hoards,” said Puzan.

“You have to be very patient and respectful. It's important not to judge.  Don’t label items in their home as trash or junk,” said Puzan. “Sometimes, you just start with one room at a time, or even one spot in a room. That’s progress and it’s good. Sometimes we contract with someone, for example, to keep pathways clear so they can get out of the house in an emergency,” said Puzan. “Big clean-ups just make them (the person hoarding) anxious and aren’t very useful in my experience,” she added.

Puzan also recommended having a therapist come to the person’s home as sometimes helpful.

Frost’s website offers in-depth resources for those seeking help with hoarding. Puzan said that some people with hoarding issues connect online for support.

Group therapy and certain medications such as anti-depressants have been found to have some beneficial effect on those afflicted with the disorder.  “You can’t tackle this problem (hoarding) quickly. Life is messy – no pun intended,” she said.

Cris Carl is a Networx writer. Read more articles or get help with your home project on

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