Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hoarding- perhaps misunderstood?

A little while ago I came across a TV show about Hoarders- people who cant throw anything away. I couldn't watch much of the program because it was A. badly done and B. incredibly insensitive. The people from the show would go into the hoarder's house, clear everything out and throw it in a big rubbish skip, in what seemed like a couple of hours.

I couldn't watch the whole episode, but I could tell from that short viewing that what they were doing would most probably be very ineffective and more than likely only make the situation worse. Not that I am an expert on hoarding- far from it. But I have worked with hoarders in my line of work, and I believe this situation requires sensitivity and time, and possibly therapy in many severe cases.

One personal job that springs to mind was with a beautiful elderly lady called Daphne. She was in her late 80's, a widow, no family members living close by and had terrible health problems.

Daphne's house was crowded from ceiling to floor with 'stuff'. Stuff in the hallways, stuff piled on furniture, stuff in the unused bathtub, stuff on most of her bed. When I arrived I spent the first hour or so sitting having a cup of tea with her, and chatting. I got to know her a little. She spoke of her kids who lived far away; her regret in not knowing her grandchildren; her charity work; her friends at Church; her late husband who was her first and only love and who she dearly missed; and a little about her childhood. She grew up very poor, as I'm sure a lot of people from her era did. She told me back in her day, every little house-hold item was used carefully, salvaged, recycled, fixed, kept in perfect working condition; valued.

Every little scrap of food was kept and very little clothing was ever bought; their family home was sparse. It was hard for me to relate to her up-bringing, as I'm sure a lot of you can understand. As she spoke to me about the poverty she grew up in, I looked at the contents of her living room and slowly began to understand why she had become this way. How could she throw away something like a chipped coffee mug, when once her mother couldn't afford to buy a coffee mug? We didn't actually speak of the condition of her home; I could see the embarrassment in her eyes and I just wanted to make her feel comfortable and trust me.

I gently asked her why she had called me, what she wanted me to help her with. She replied that she needed help to clear her kitchen table, so that she could just have a place to sit and eat her meals. We went into the kitchen and I could see that the table was piled high with paperwork, bric-a-brac, medicines, little notes, pieces of plastic, and many, many other things. I got to work straight away and spent the next several days with Daphne, and together we slowly went through item by item, deciding if she really needed it (phone bill- yes; apple core- no). I don't want to be disrespectful here in any way- I could clearly see after her living this way for years how difficult it had become for her to fully differentiate between certain items. I didn't bill her my usual hourly rate because I knew this job was going to take a lot of slow work and patience. I mentally worked out how long it would take me to do it if I was on my own (probably about 2 hours), and billed her for that time, instead of the actual 3 days it took us to do it together.

A couple of days later and we had successfully cleared her kitchen table and I had filed the paperwork, tided other little areas in the kitchen to make room for the objects that were once on the table and disposed of the food rubbish. She was absolutely thrilled with the result- and I could tell that she was going to try hard to keep up the easy systems I had set up for her (medicines here in this pile; paperwork there in that pile). I knew there was no point to just throw everything that you or I would consider rubbish in the bin- this would only have created pain for her and after a few weeks the table would be back to how it was originally.

From my personal experiences with hoarding I do believe that just going in to the house and throwing everything away like they were doing on that TV show, would only make the matter worse. The cause of hoarding seems to go much deeper than just being disorganised or too busy; severe hoarding must be a psychological issue that can stem from deep down and probably doesn't actually have anything at all to do with the 'stuff' or how much organising time the person has.

I know this is a sensitive issue, and a lot of us can relate to not being able to throw something away, myself included. I am a firm believer in saving things 'in case I need it one day', especially when you don't have a lot of money and you are trying to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle. My husband and I try to live by the rule "reduce, reuse, recycle", and we try to buy as little plastic as possible. But I also know that my home has a limit in space- and I know that for me to be happy I need to get rid of things now and then, whether it be recycled or put in the bin- I hate contributing to land-fill but I don't know what else I can do with what I regard as rubbish.

I'm sorry, I don't really have an answer to hoarding; as I said I'm definitely no expert and I sympathise with people who for one reason or another live in that way. I just hope that they are brave enough to seek help if their health or their happiness is jeopardised in any way- and I hope that whoever is called upon to help them does so in a gentle, understanding and sensitive way.

I am now going to call Daphne to say hi :)


  1. This is a beautifully written and sensitive post. Thank you.

  2. Hi Sarndra,
    Hoarding is a big problem. I have seen programs about hoarding too and all of those people had a reason to do it. Someone had lived through WW2 and had nothing in those days, so she hoarded tinned food, someone else was very poor, just like Daphne, and hoarded all kinds of things.
    I think you did a great job with Daphne. It is a very sensitive thing and this way I think you really helped her !!!
    Have a great day.

  3. Hi Sarndra,

    I have watched most of the Hoarders programs and believe that your short snippet does not reflect what the program was doing. In each of the cases they deal with, they are at some crisis point eg, likely to be evicted, or have their children removed, or their family was abandoning the hoarder due to not ever having success with them. They call in a psychologist that works alongside the hoarder during the entire clean out and only throw out things after a long and painful discussion about each item. After the home is cleared the hoarder often chooses to have ongoing therapy although at all times the rights of the hoarder are adhered to closely. So if they don't want therapy then they don't have it. The Hoarders themselves have asked for help from the psychologist to get the ball rolling.
    I understand fully from watching these programs what the origins of the problems are for people, a death in the family, poverty in early life ( as you mentioned).
    Well done for helping Daphne and being so sensitive to her needs. That's what these psychologists do on this program.

  4. Hi, I was going to comment exactly like the above, that I've not seen many episodes, but it was definitely emphasised about just chucking stuff does not solve the problem, that it is about letting go etc.

    My other comment is that it can be very hard when one person in a relationship (my hubby) tends to have hoarding habits and the other (me!) tends to follow the "I haven't used in over 2 years rule, so out it goes". A few things sold have not gone down well... other stuff he'll never know. I mostly do check first though... :)

  5. Hi bluezbandit,
    Thanku for explaining what they actually do on the program- and I apologise for commenting on the show when I obviously knew little about it. I'm so glad to hear that psychologists are invloved- I'm sure that its extremely important.
    I hope I haven't offended you or any of my other readers- that was definitely not my intention. A good lesson learnt here tho- I shouldn't make remarks on TV shows that I haven't fully watched or understood :-)
    I hope you have a lovely day.
    xx Sarndra

  6. My grandmother was a hoarder and she too was from a very poor time growing up. She could not throw anything away. When my mother and her sisters went in to clean out her house after she went into a nursing home, she vowed that my brother sister and I would never have to do that. My mom is the complete opposite of her mother. She is very organized. My parents have even taken care of everything that has to do with their own funerals....they have it all paid for, set up and organized. I know that is something you don't want to think about, but she is just that organized! Everything is in it's place and if my siblings and I ever need to find anything, especially important papers, we know exactly where it is located.
    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  7. Hi Laurie,
    Your mother is wonderful- so thoughtful to have all that organisation done, to make things easier for you and your siblings in the future. Thanks for sharing :-)

  8. Annet, my husband and I are chalk and cheese in many ways, which certainly makes for a lot of conflict! I don't mean fighting, I mean that we often come at things from completely different angles and have different solutions, methods and goals, that being conflict in my eyes. Likewise, he's a hoarder and I'm ruthless (but very 'green', so not a consumer, or wasteful either, I hasten to add - I give it all to charity!) What I have determined after 10 years of marriage however, is that coming from opposite ends of the field, experiencing that conflict, and needing to find a compromise makes for better decisions :-) It stops us from making extreme decisions and doing extreme things and means that we both have to compromise to some degree ALL OF THE TIME. I've come to realise that it's an advantage, even if I do hate the constant conflict and not getting my own way :-P

    (My 36yr old husband still has his under 15s rugby jersey from school. I really DON'T get that! He doesn't wear it, and there doesn't seem to be any sentiment attached.)

  9. Hi Deborah,
    I think its really lovely that you can appreciate the value in being so different to your husband. You both meet in the middle ground, and you obviously both have a lot of respect for each other; I think thats wonderful.
    Cute about the rugby jersey- sometimes we as women just have to let some things slide eh ;-)

  10. Thanks Rhonda :-) :-) I love you too! How did the Sorry Day go? I hope it was a good turn out. Xxo

  11. Hello, I'm Anna from Malta, I love and need your blog as I tend to hoard stuff, but I'm determined to de-clutter this Summer (being in Nhemisphere) and your blog helps to inspire and get me started! You sound like a very sensitive organiser too, good for you, we need more of your likes around!

  12. Sarndra, I certainly didn't take offense so no problems there. I look forward to your blog entries as eagerly as I do to Rhonda's. Thank you both for trying to help us make our lives better.


  13. Thanks bluezbandit- i was embarrassed to make the mistake of jumping to the wrong conclusion and ive learnt a lesson there :-) Thanks so much for reading and commenting- it makes me day :-) "see" u again soon Xx sarndra

  14. Sorry Day was an absolute wonder. I've blogged about it and have photos here when you visit again.

  15. Hi Sarndra,
    I LOVED Daphne's story. Sounds like you did a wonderful job with her; treating her with dignity and respect while helping her achieve what she needed to. I take my hat off to you.
    Late last year, my parents had their house made over by a an Australian Reality TV Show; Selling Houses Australia on Foxtel. It aired a couple of months ago.
    Both my parents were 'hoarders'. They did this as a means of survival having come to Australia with very little and giving all they had to support us all growing up with all the demands that takes! They had no help AT ALL and kept so much (clothing, furntiure, bric a brac) that came their way 'just in case' they might need it one day. They are such sweet people and what was really disapointing for us, was that they were told that this would all be really higlighted in the show but sadly it wasn't. They didn't have a psychologist on hand
    Since I had tried to help them sort out and cull before, the producer's of the show rang me and asked if I would be willing to be there to help mum delcutter which I did. We were the only ones (bar one lovely extra guy who stayed for a day) there to declutter the entire house of 30+ years of hoarding! It was just me, my mum and dad, my hubby + my sil! And we had to do it all in one weekend! And we did it! Yay! Their house sold for more than the show thought it would and my mum and dad feel totally free now. They have moved to their retirement spot on the coast. They were very thankful for the opportunity but were upset that a couple of people on the show kind of made out that they had 'issues' going on. The only 'issues' they had were that they were so focussed on keeping our family afloat that they did whatever that took; including hoarding.
    I really wish they had had YOU on their team Sarndra - they could have done with the kind of empathy that you showed to Daphene. Some of the team were like that but it would have been good to have someone help them like you while they were decluttering.
    Anyway, just wanted to share that with you ;)
    The link to the post about it on my blog if you are keen to read it is here:

    Love Lusi x

  16. Thanku so much Lusi. I have commented on your beautiful blog.

  17. Love your blog! I longingly dream of being organised and everything having it's place.. Alas, I have a hoarder husband, and after fighting an uphill battle to keep it under control for the last ten years I have almost succumb to it myself. Difference is, I can be ruthless when I have a clean out! After moving house several times in a short time frame dear hubby has seen the need to "cull" and he has made some progress- last move we hired a skip bin!! I had a field day!! We continue to do some downsizing, Just recently in fact as we had to sort the spare room out for little one to upgrade from bassinet to Cot- hubby threw out stuff I had hassled about for nearly five years and several moves ago! The trouble with having so much gear is keeping track of it- I have though seriously about grabbing a cheap address book and recording where certain items are stored- in the vain hope of avoiding the " turning the house upside down" search and rescue party ;) surely there is a more technological solution- is there an iPhone app to take pics of the said object and it's hiding place?? Hubby found an app where you can scan DVD bar codes to compile a list of all the DVDs you own- saves time typing it up!
    I admire your organizational prowess- keep it up - as the family grows so does the amount of "stuff" you acquire! Best wishes with your little peanut :)

  18. Hi Anje
    Thanks for your comment- love the iphone app ideas! Its great u made the most of it when your hubby felt like culling, and hired a skip- a great idea since you pay for those you would feel like u have to use it to get your money's worth :) Thanks for visiting

  19. Great post! I am a new reader and I just HAVE to tell you that it is great that you come back and comment after people. I think it is wonderful. Makes me think you are truly a caring person. Sorry to get off topic. Just had to mention it!


  20. Hi Ashley! O thank you- thats so nice of u :-) I LOVE reading the comments and it really makes my day! I just wish Blogger would notify us when a comment is replied to, like Facebook does. Slight flaw there, Blogger! Lol
    Have a lovely day!