I was recently giving a seminar on hoarding, when an older woman in the front row raised her hand. I saw numbers tattooed on her forearm and knew right away what they meant.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
She stood. “I’m tired of you calling me a ‘hoarder,’” she said. “I am NOT a hoarder. I am a person who is currently struggling with hoarding. I survived the Holocaust. I came to America as an immigrant. My husband and I built a business and raised a family, and then I helped him through his dementia until he died. I like to cook. And my favorite color is blue. I don’t consider hoarding to be in the top 10 most interesting things about me. It happens to be something I temporarily do.”
The place went nuts.
Even before the applause died down, I realized she was absolutely right.
I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to declutter with people who let stuff pile up. Whether or not you are dealing with actual “hoarder” parents doesn’t really matter, because the treatment is the same (and the label shouldn’t define them anyway). Here are some of the basics if you are trying to get your hoarder parents or grandparents to let some things go.
Apply love, not labels
Any therapist will tell you not to identify someone by their diagnosis. If you are dealing with true hoarder parents, know that hoarding is a mental disorder, “the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. The behavior usually has harmful effects—emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal—for the person suffering from the disorder and family members.” People hoard looking for happiness or self-worth in the stuff they acquire. The disorder is almost always caused by trauma or tragedy and can lead to financial ruin, put people in physical danger, and destroy families. Sufferers need your patience and love, not scorn.
Consider other motives
You may think you are dealing with hoarder parents, but hoarding might not be the problem. Your 85-year-old mother’s refusal to throw out used aluminum foil, mason jars and ancient cans of beans might be the sort of extreme frugality seen in older adults raised during the Great Depression. Frugality for them is a virtue. It was drilled into their heads by their parents during times too tough for most of us to imagine. Saving is all about being good kids, not hoarding.
Regardless of the motivation, forget trying to change a hoarder parent’s behavior using logic. You can explain that plastic zipper bags are designed to be disposable, but your mom will reuse them anyway. Telling your 85-year-old father that his six-foot-high piles of newspaper are a fire hazard is like warning him that if he doesn’t quit smoking, cigarettes will kill him. He’s probably been smoking since he was 14, and that logic just doesn’t work for him.
Instead, be compassionate and non-judgmental when dealing with hoarder parents. Pull on your work clothes and offer to help them actually clean out a cluttered garage. Showing empathy makes people feel valued and builds trust. And you’ll need buckets of trust if you’re trying to get someone to part with their stuff.
If they have a ratty couch, don’t say, “this couch is old, heavy and worthless.” Instead, comment on how solid it is and suggest donating it to a local homeless shelter. Most people hoard so they can actually give stuff away. Work that to your advantage so that the donation brings immediate gratification. With frugal children of the Depression, I find brutal-but-positive honesty to be most effective. If they have 1000 books, instead of telling them they have to get rid of 900, we’ll ask them to help choose 100 to keep.
It can be frustrating trying to help an uncooperative elderly relative declutter. But part of showing compassion is not dwelling on the mess. Instead, try being a supportive, loving family member or friend. If your loved one is too stubborn to let something go, ask yourself if the struggle is worth it. As long as they’re healthy, and the house is safe, a little extra tin foil won’t hurt anyone.