Overwhelmed…Embarrassed…Angry…Alone…Chaos…..Too much clutter around you? As a professional organizer and social worker, I have seen firsthand the struggle people have in living with and letting go of their possessions. In cases where a large amount of items are impacting their daily functioning, hoarding disorder may be suspected. Their homes are filled with items they have collected over period of time. Those items may have little value but can be mixed in with items of value such as photos, memorabilia, antiques, etc. They may have pathways through their homes that are difficult to move through. They may not be able to use their bathrooms, bedrooms or kitchen areas. There may be health and safety concerns (fire danger, lack of egress in emergency situations, etc.) They may have strained relationships with family and friends due to the hoarding behavior.
Working in hoarding situations as a professional organizer differs from typical chronic disorganization (chronic illness, ADD, etc.) or situational organizational challenges (death in the family, birth of a child, divorce, job loss, etc.). In hoarding situations, environmental conditions and safety are the biggest concerns for myself and my clients. Pests, rodents, mold, feces/urine, etc. have to be considered and personal protection equipment (PPE) must be worn in the cases that are extreme.
The person who is hoarding doesn’t usually see that there is a problem. Family, friends, neighbors, emergency responders and code enforcement officials tend to be the ones bringing these cases to light. Providing these clients with support, understanding and resources in hoarding disorder is my primary role as the professional organizer. An assessment of the situation is done in the home with the client and/or family members. A Plan of Action is developed. If the situation is more extreme, a team is used to complete the clean out work. In less extreme cases, individual organizers do the hands on work.
Since there is a lot of attachment to the things in the home, small sections at a time are worked on. The client is usually working side by side with the organizer to make decisions on the items. Items are sorted into categories such as Donate, Keep, Important, Throw away, Recycle, Give to Others and Go to Another Place in Home. This is considered a rough sort. The Keep items, etc. are labeled and put into storage such as a garage, off site storage, or another room in the home. The Important items are put in a safe location where the client can locate them easily.
Working with clients who have hoarding disorder can last for many months, even years. Counseling services with a mental health professional is required in conjunction with hands on work with an organizer. Many times the coordination between the organizer and therapist will help to support the client in dealing with the emotions that come to the surface during the process of decluttering. Slower and steady decluttering and organizing is the preferred method of organizing as opposed to the fast clean outs. Studies have shown that fast clean outs don’t usually lead to behavior changes but rather the hoarding of the spaces continues. Intervention with resources such as mental health professionals, professional organizers, interested family members and friends can make all the difference in whether success or failure occurs.
The key to successful intervention is in the approach taken when discussing the situation. Being respectful, non-confrontational, non-judgmental, supportive and factual tends to be the most successful. This can be difficult for family and friends who may have been dealing with the hoarding behavior for years and don’t understand the disorder. Education is key to understanding and dealing with this complicated disorder.
To learn more about hoarding disorder and the role of professional organizers, visit these websites: Institute for Challenging Disorganization, National Association of Professional Organizers, Michigan Chapter of NAPO, Children of Hoarders.