How to Know if Your Loved One Has Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome

The moment the elevator doors opened the stench was overpowering. Eyes watered, nostrils burned, fight or flight impulses activated.

We hadn’t even gotten into the apartment yet—the trash was crammed so tightly floor to ceiling it was nearly impossible to open the door.

Inside: Narrow paths from room to room. Boxes filled with junk mail, old newspapers, invitations to exhibitions that happened years ago. Hundreds of soda bottles filled with a yellow liquid….

First, we’d need to get a Stay of Eviction. THEN we’d have to get to work.

A Hoarded Home and a Home with Excessive Clutter Have One Thing in Common—Excessive Clutter… That’s Where the Similarities End

Keeping a house clean and well-lighted requires time, energy, a level of physical health and, sometimes, other resources—e.g. money to hire help, rent a truck to take trash to the dump, and pay the dump fees.

It can get away from us. Though it may take a while for it to get to the point where we can’t deal with it by ourselves, it happens.

That’s Life.

Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome is about much more than excessive clutter...

But whereas a person who lives with excessive clutter is happy to be rid of it, and will frequently take steps to deal with it, a true hoarder finds it almost impossible to act. The process is too painful.

Throw the broken chair…the moldy box spring…the 100 margarine tubs away?

To hoarders, that’s like throwing away parts of their selves.

Because in spite of appearances, Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome actually isn’t about things—it’s about trying to fill a psychological need through acquiring and keeping things.

 “You’re pulling everything in around you, building the hamster’s nest, building the wall. Part of it is for the high. It’s an addiction, sort of. But it’s also to fill a void. It fills a lot of void.” —Sandy S., compulsive hoarder

The difference, then, between the excessively cluttered and the hoarded home is—almost always—the person living there.

It’s important to note: Hoarding is not a moral failing. It is a serious problem—a distinct mental illness recognized by the American Psychiatric Association—that can indicate many other problems.

Dr. David Tolin—Founder and Director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine—has shown that some 60 percent of people who hoard are affected by Depression, 30 percent by Social Anxiety Disorder, and 20 to 23 percent are in varying stages of dementia.

An equal-opportunity disorder, Hoarding Syndrome affects all ages, races, genders, educational levels, nationalities and socio-economic statuses.

Might someone you know have a hoarding problem? Here are some tell-tale signs:

  1. Hoarders don’t tend to let people into their homes. This doesn’t mean they’re anti-social. Often they are happy to meet you somewhere for coffee, take in a movie together, or visit you in your
  2. The shades are always down, the curtains are always drawn. The person who hoards won’t invite you in, and they don’t want you to see in, either.
  3. Things are outside that should be inside, like appliances, upholstered furniture and knick-knacks spilling onto the porch or into the yard. Frequently, even the car is packed with stuff.
  4. They’re using an off-site storage facility (or two or three) to house belongings. Meanwhile, their home is so full that you’re not sure if the couch is even there anymore.
  5. Living spaces are so cluttered they are dysfunctional. Often, hoarders cannot cook in the kitchen, sleep in their beds, bathe in their bathrooms—they’re buried in clutter. Plumbing, electricity, heating, air conditioning may not function well, if at all. Infestations are common.

If you’re seeing these signs, it’s time to initiate the remediation process.

The alternative is to wait until an eviction notice is served and state agencies get involved.

Still, When Dealing with Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome a Gentle Touch Is Needed 

After the hoarding remediation process has been completed, on-going support is necessary -- otherwise the behavior will return quickly.

Bringing the home to a level that can be easily maintained is crucial but, good intentions notwithstanding, the “slash and burn” method is more likely to produce trauma than promote gratitude.

During the project the tasks will include everything from donating, recycling and trashing to mold removal, heavy cleaning and construction. And sometimes more. Then, on-going support is needed, as the underlying causes of hoarding do not go away. Without regular support the behavior reappears quickly after remediation.

But before the cleaners, exterminators and appraisers can even begin, your job is to communicate with your loved one—to help them see that they have a problem, and that it needs to be dealt with immediately.

Following are 10 ways to make the Hoarding Remediation process go as smoothly as possible:

  1. Set boundaries.
  2. Respect the person who hoards. You can judge the living situation, not the individual.
  3. Listen to the individual’s ideas and plans for their belongings.
  4. Find a positive space to begin. Even if it’s just a one-square-foot space that’s not cluttered. It builds on hope, faith and ability, which is often lacking.
  5. Encourage them to voice their hopes—realistic or not…
  6. Then, help them be realistic. “You’re in violation of health and fire codes and you’re being evicted. You won’t be able to go home until we change that.”
  7. Be firm in identifying the problem, even when you’re screamed at. One roach means hundreds. One mouse seen equals scores not seen. All carry disease. This is dangerous to health and safety—everyone’
  8. Communicate what you can and cannot, will and will not do—in a respectfully, firmly. Professional help is needed. Family and friends, landlords and boards, need help to help them. It’s a collaboration, not a confrontation.
  9. Pace the work. Account for the time it takes to go through years of memories, stories and fears. Steady progress in decluttering is most important.
  10. How much is good enough? The space needs to be clean and safe, not perfect.


Is hoarding a threat to health and safety?


No one wants to disrespect a parent, the sweet neighbor next door, the colleague.

But the most respectful and caring thing one can do is take action.

The sooner action is taken, the sooner that person is safe.



If you’re worried that a loved one has a hoarding problem, call us in the greater Washington, DC metro area at 301-650-4169.

We can help.

Or visit our Contact page to set up a free, in-home assessment.



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