Hoarding…Now We Know

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I am very fortunate to work in a field that can be many things to many people.  Today, I am sharing a post I wrote over on Support for Special Needs about how I came to learn more about organizing for people who hoard.  Thanks for clicking through!



How Far Would You Go…?

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Image“What’s it like to live downstairs from a hoarder? Lalie and her children suffer the effects of mold, mice and flea infestations because their upstairs neighbor and landlord, Denise, has secretly acquired one of the show’s most massive hoards to date.” – TLC’s website 4/23/13

When the e-mail came in asking if I was interested in volunteering as part of a team from the National Association of Professional Organizers’ (NAPO) Chicago Chapter on a television shoot for TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive, I was conflicted.  On the one hand, the other shoot I participated in for A&E’s “Hoarders” was an incredible learning experience.  This time, however, it was January and we would probably be sorting and assisting outside.  I also knew more about hoarded environments and the unique challenges they create.  Realistically, I knew the experience could push me to the limit physically, mentally, and emotionally but I felt up to the challenge.  The desire to help and raise awareness about people who hoard won out and I agreed to join the team.

Unfortunately, the day of the shoot was one of those days that hovers around 0 degrees.  Fortunately, I am a pro at being prepared and had covered all the bases.  (Ask me about it sometime.  That’s an entire other post!)

We were told the inside of the home was so entirely contaminated that we would not be going inside.  Our team of NAPO-Chicago Professional Organizers waited outside and prepared the environment for sorting and discarding.  Keeping busy helped us stay warm – like skiing!

The word came down that our assistance outside would not continue as planned.  Would we be willing to don HazMat suits and help clear the contaminated materials instead?  At that point, we knew innocent children were living in the building.  How could we walk away?

We stayed.  Our team was provided with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment and we went in.  It will be difficult to watch the episode, “Leading a Double Life” (airing Wednesday, April 24th)  because there were areas where we were not allowed to go.  And background information we did not have.  But we are professionals.  And we did it for the kids living in that building.  And for Denise, who was accepting our help.  And we would do it again.

How far would you go?

Loving a Person Who Hoards

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Loving a person who hoards is a challenge on many levels; perhaps the most difficult being that the person who hoards does not generally acknowledge the problems caused by his/her behavior.  I recently re-read a passage from, Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring, by Tompkins and Hartl, and was struck by the simplicity of the initial message. I am sharing it here with the hope that it may help those of you wanting to help a loved one who hoards, but who have not been successful with past attempts.

An effective method for helping a loved one who hoards is to change your own thinking!  The person who loves the person who hoards must release the idea that he/she can “fix” their loved one.  The authors suggest providing slow, compassionate help to make the environment safe instead.

Instead of constantly trying to figure out ways of changing acquiring behaviors and to “get rid” of stuff, it can be more effective to simply view the situation from the perspective of safety or, “Harm Reduction.”

“Harm reduction assumes that it’s not necessary that your loved one stop all acquiring or clear all debris to reduce harm.”

Focusing on harm reduction changes the conversation.  For example, in a meeting with a new client, I can quickly discern if the individual is not going to acknowledge the hoarded conditions of the living environment.  I point out what I see as it relates to “harm reduction.”  My part of the conversation goes something like this:

“I heard you tell me you are having difficulties with your right leg….Because you had to walk over things to get to your chair, I am concerned you will further injure your leg….Today we will work on moving things to clear this area so it is safe for you to walk.”

The idea is not to make judgment on the items as the piles are cleared.  Perhaps try sorting them into categories, but keep focused on getting items off the floor and into a contained place.  Remember, your loved one does not view the environment the same way as you do, so you do not need “perfect” conditions (big empty bins, empty tables) to begin.

Think of it as deconstructing a salad!  Separate and bag the wilted lettuce, mushy tomato wedges, and stiff shredded cheese.  Find a spot for the croutons, soggy cucumber slices, and shredded carrots.  If there is salad dressing threatening to mold on things, address “mold” as a safety hazard – NOT, “Why did you let the salad dressing sit here on the salad for two weeks!!!”.  Just clear the piles (perhaps into contained general categories) and move them out of harm’s way.   Listen for an off-hand comment, “I guess I don’t really need that.” and have a small bag ready to use for such acknowledgments of trash/donations.

The initial goal for helping a loved one who hoards is to make strides toward creating a safe environment and re-building trust.  It may not be easy, but dig deep for the patience.  Avoid making judgments about the quantity and quality of the items tossed together on the floor.  “First, do no harm.”