Hoarding can be a difficult topic to discuss. What’s the difference between someone who enjoys collecting the occasional items versus someone who has an unhealthy obsession with clutter and chaos? And how do you know when to say something?

A hoarder is someone who has repeated difficulty parting with possessions, no matter how little value the items have to them. Research suggests that compulsive hoarding impacts 1 in 50 people, possibly as many as 1 in 20. For such a common condition, however, many of us don’t know the signs of hoarding, nor how to talk about it with the people. The issue is even more complicated if we’re not physically close to the people we suspect may be at risk.

Whether you’re concerned about loved ones or simply interested in mental health and wellbeing, here’s how to know from afar if your family is at risk of having a hoarding disorder.

Early behavioral signs of hoarding

Subtle actions may indicate that someone is starting to create unhealthy living conditions for themselves. Paying attention to changes in people’s behavior can be the initial step to preventing a harmful hoarding obsession.

If you notice that a family member displays extreme stress when they’re asked to throw out items, that could suggest that they are susceptible to hoarding. Likewise, if they show anxiety about needing items in the future or if they become distressed when others touch their belongings. Generally withdrawing from family and friends is another symptom, as well as refusing to let others enter their home or particular spaces within their home.

Buying an excessive amount of items or accumulating items on a daily basis signals a hoarding tendency too. In some cases, hoarding acts as a way to procrastinate from other tasks and progressively worsens as the person avoids stressful activities. 

Physical signs of hoarding at home

The most tangible manner to determine if a family member is hoarding is to see where they live and assess the situation. Naturally, this is difficult if you don’t live close to them, but you could ask them to turn on their camera when speaking to them virtually or to give you a virtual tour of their space.

Typical hoarding conditions include stacks of items like papers and clothes, undiscarded food waste, bundles of items that block doorways and corridors, and noticeable disorganization throughout the living space.

Animals can also be hoarded. A high number of pets kept inside or outside could mean unsanitary conditions, and pose a danger to both the animals’ and the owner’s lives.

The physical signs of hoarding will likely create a sense of stress in the home that impacts both visitors and the owner. Speak to neighbors and friends who have been to the location; if they tell you that they’ve had arguments when trying to remove the clutter, or that the relative doesn’t want the placement of items changed, that’s a red flag.

In extreme cases, hoarders may be unable to move about their house and be exposed to harmful bacteria and mold, infestations of rodents, and other hazardous contaminations.

Why do people hoard in the first place?

There are a number of reasons why a family member may develop a hoarding disorder. If they have a relative who also suffers from hoarding, or lives with someone who hoards, they’ll be more likely to mirror the behavior.

In other circumstances, hoarding can be triggered by a traumatic event or mental illness such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Elsewhere, people who struggle to control their buying habits are more prone to hoarding. The problem escalates if they start to believe that all items have a sentimental value, will be needed in the future, or are needed to help them feel safe.

How should I intervene?

If you suspect that a family member is hoarding, it’s important to act fast. Contact a mental health professional and explain the severity of your relative’s situation. Asking the professional for advice on the next steps will help create an action plan and can assist in figuring out how to talk to your loved one about the situation.

Housing agencies, protective services, elderly services, and animal control may also need to be contacted. Additionally, the police, fire, or public health department might need to get involved depending on how advanced the hoarding is.

Throughout the process, remember to stay focused on your relative and not their belongings. Try not to judge, and to listen and empathize with how they describe their behavior and living conditions. If they’re open to making a change, work with them to set reasonable, measurable goals. For example, get them to get rid of one particular item first, and then gradually increase the scope. When they do make positive changes (no matter how small) be sure to recognize and celebrate them. Even these smallest first steps could be met with anger, anxiety, or extreme sadness, but just remember hoarding is often associated with a mental health condition, many of which often have difficult paths to recovery.

Hoarding is a complex matter, made even more complicated when you’re not near to the person in question. Educating yourself about the signs of hoarding is best to lay the path to recovery as quickly as possible. If you or somebody you know is ready to do an extreme hoarding cleanup, reach out to Valor’s team of technical cleaning experts.

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