Getting hoarders the resources they need

Oct 13, 2011

Hoarding task forces in the Washington area are helping those who suffer from the condition improve their lives. Bonnie Klem, a member of Montgomery County's task force, will take questions on her work.

One person's collecting is another person's hoarding. What is the line between collecting and hoarding?

This is a wonderful question and one asked most frequently and appropriately.  When items prevent spaces from being used for their intended purpose (beds, tables, microwaves, chairs, bathtubs,) or endanger the safety of the house andthe health of the  people within the house (clutter near furnaces, clutter affecting the structure of the house and the utilities, rotting undiscarded food), there is a problem that warrents attention. It is important to realize that the person has to be willing to accept some type of help. 

My husband is an absolute hoarder. He keeps everything and has an emotional attachment to many objects. I understand keeping momentos of happy times in life but he saves everything! This is all the way down to the IV pole that we once had to use for our daughter when she was sick (15 years ago). He will always find a way to keep something: He might need it again. I might need it again. The kids might need it again, or it just has some kind of memory attached to it. How do I help him? My kitchen and all living areas are spotless because they are my domain. However, the garage is full and so is a spare bedroom, an office, the basement and our room is now entering into the frey. I forgot to say that I love him to pieces!

 It is very positive to see that your husband has been willing to attempt to confine his "objects" to specific areas.  It shows insight and a willingness to acknowledge your needs and feelings about the situation.  It is important to recognize that all of these items have value to your husband.  However, he could receive assistance in learning how to separate what he can discard from what he can't or won't discard.  This may be a long process, but he may be willing to start with one small area and continue if the task is broken up into segments.  Professional organizers may also be a help in this task.


We also need help. We don't understand what is wrong. We often don't have a name for it. It wasn't until talk shows put hoarders on TV did we have a name for it.

It isn't a matter of what is wrong. Hoarding is a problem that can cause great distress.  Help is available if the person or persons are willing to accept help.  Check with your local Department of Social Services to find help in your area.

I watch "Hoarders" regularly. When do we stop calling it "stuff" and start calling it "trash," which is exactly what these people keep? And some call themselves "collectors," which isn't right either, because true collectors take care of whatever it is they collect. Put it in a display case, for example.

See answer above that describes when people stop being collectors and start being hoarders.

My teenage daughter (and truth be told, me as well) has a significant problem with cleaning up her room and organization in general. She frequently takes everything out of her closet and dumps it on the floor (supposedly to "organize her closet") but it often just stays on the floor in one giant pile. I know that this not only affects the family, but certainly her performance in school as well. For me, I like to shop, and I also bring home lots or paper from meetings that I attend so my home office is sort of an eyesore. So, are we hoarders? Or are we simply grossly disorganized and suffering from ADD (which we both take medication for)?

Frequently ADD can make it difficult to focus and complete a task, particularly a task as difficult as organizing volumes of material.  You seem to have a lot of insight into your daughter's and possibly your situation.  A professional organizer, coach or therapist can help you find strategies to accomplish your goals.

The two hoarders (both women) that I have known adamantly refused any idea that anything they were doing fell into the realm of needing help. Both were compulsive shoppers, buying anything and everything, multiples of items, things they didn't need or even really want.  How can any government or outside entity hope to influence behavior? I agree with the sentiment of hoping to 'help', but reality is quite different!

What a great question! You seem to care a great deal about your friends.  Unfortunately, they seem to be in denial about their problem.  This is a large barrier to cross over.  At some point they may be able to recognize the issue themselves and be willing to accept help.  Governmental agencies cannot intervene against their will, unless the environment is unsafe and unhealthy.

How effective are the psychopharmacological interventions and therapeutic interventions, especially the psychopharmacological?

The psychopharmacological interventions frequently address co-occurring psychiatric symptoms and not the actual hoarding behavior.  Therapeutic interventions are the best treatment modalities known at this time. 

They have houses full of bags of items purchased but never emptied or used and half plates of food all over the place. They do half of a process, and let it end there. But what of people who collect and have good collections of books or other objects? Should they get rid of all of it? Or sort out what is valuable and what is not?

This is a very interesting question.  People have the right to make life choices.  As long as they are not putting themselves or other people in danger,  they can enjoy their possessions. 

How often does someone who is a hoarder end up working successfully with an organizer or someone and make progress?

People who seek supports indicate a willingness to work towards a goal and often this is a good prognostic indicator.  This problem may be chronic and may require further assistance at a later time.

Task forces have been established in Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties (from the article). Where can I go to get help for a relative who lives in Washington, D.C.?

I suggest you contact the Washington D.C. Department of Social Services to see what resources are available for your relative.

I guess I'm compulsive in the other direction. I cannot relax or concentrate unless my house is clean and uncluttered. Why can't they see there's a problem when they can no longer navigate through or use a room?

In most cases, the hoarder is suffering from a specific disorder and lacks the insight of which you speak.  Frequently it is often difficult for someone on the outside to understand this.  The hoarder is not always able to make clear choices and often needs professional help.

I am afraid to bring a family hoarding issue to the attention of the authorities because I don't want my family member to lose his or her home, even temporarily. Yet, I am not able to affect a meaningful change by myself. What is the risk that authorities would remove a hoarder from his or her home?

If the person is in danger to themselves or others as a result of this behavior, the authorities may need to respond.  A good first step, however,  may be to arrange for a professional assessment prior to contacting social services or code enforcement.   

I live in Arlington. What are the limits to how much outdoor junk a hoarder can have? Our neighbor's house was condemned last spring after the rescue squad had trouble getting into her home. The county cleaned out the house but never made her get rid of the "dead" car in her driveway filled with papers, plastic shopping bags, etc. I would think that type of debris would be a fire hazard in a closed vehicle.

Each jurisdiction has their own regulations and procedures.  You will need to contact Arlington County Code Enforcement for the answer. 

How do you have an intervention if the hoarder refuses to recognize the problem or attend an intervention? And cuts everyone out of her life who tries to intervene?

This is the kind of person that is extremely difficult to work with unless she is presenting a danger to herself or others due to the hoarding behavior.  Continued interest by family and friends may make a difference in her life. 

In This Chat
Bonnie Klem
Bonnie Klem is a member of the Montgomery County Hoarding Task Force and supervises investigations for the county's adult protective services. Reporter Josh White spoke with her for his story, "Local hoarding task forces aim to get sufferers the help they need." Klem will discuss what options are available for helping hoarders and what to do if you suspect someone you know is a hoarder.
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