According to the NHS, hoarding is now an officially recognised disorder, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy topic to tackle when you have a family member who is suffering – especially in the case of an elderly relative in need of care. We’ve spoken with Jo Cooke, director of Hoarding Disorders UK and author of Understanding Hoarding to get her take on where to start when handling a very sensitive subject.
It’s not about the ‘stuff’, it’s about the person
One of the things that Jo is very keen to point out is that addressing hoarding has to be a person-centred activity. “There may be all sorts of reasons why someone has kept thirty years’ worth of jam jars and every newspaper and pair of trousers that they’ve ever bought. Some people may have had deprived childhoods, others may be suffering from terrible loneliness. The important thing to remember is to focus on the person – not the stuff they have accumulated.”
Talk to them about safety
“Starting the conversation from a safety point of view,” says Jo, “means that your loved one is much more likely to listen. If they have reduced mobility or need to let a carer into their home, then talking about safety is not only a gentle way to begin addressing their hoarding, it’s really important for their ongoing quality of life. Explain to your relative that clutter on the stairs or loose rugs may cause them to fall, or that a back door that is blocked will stop them getting out in the event of a fire. You may be surprised by how well they respond.”
Jo also told us about the Safe and Well initiative run by the Fire Service. Safe and Well offers free home visits to vulnerable members of society including people aged 65+, people with disabilities and those suffering from a hoarding disorder. The service includes:
- A custom-made information pack
- Installing new and checking existing smoke alarms
- Issuing fire retardant bedding, furniture throws and nightwear where needed
- Referrals to other services for professional assessment
You can find out more information about Safe and Well from your local Fire Service. Details for all regions can be found here: www.cfoa.org.uk.
Deal with the least emotional items first
In Jo’s experience, it’s best to begin with items that do not have an emotional connection. In the case of one client, they had more than 80 towels taking up space and they found the concept of passing these on to a homeless shelter far easier to deal with than sorting through photographs.
“Don’t begin with a drawer full of documents that may have an emotional connection,” advises Jo, “start instead with something like kitchen appliances or collections of gardening tools. It makes it a much gentler start and gives you the chance to make some early, noticeable progress.”
Ask the person
Sometimes in our haste to ‘fix’ the visible problem, we forget to ask the person in need of help how they feel or what they need. Jo’s answer is to make sure that addressing hoarding is an ongoing dialogue – not something that happens in the space of one visit. Her advice is to ask questions such as:
“Tell me who you would like to have these paperbacks.”
“How would you feel about donating some bedding and toiletries to help a family in need?”
“Which items that are most precious to you?”
Take it one room at a time
If it’s possible, speaking to the person outside of their home surroundings helps them to take a more objective view and decide which items are most important to them. Jo finds that a useful strategy is to talk the person through their house one room at a time. “You’d be surprised at what people remember,” says Jo, “one lady I worked with knew exactly where she had a bag that was full of bags – it was more important to her than a bag that she had stored money in.”
Demonstrate how their hoarding can help others
Jo has discovered that people who hoard can be extremely altruistic – many of them have held on to items ‘just in case’ and feel comforted by the knowledge that their belongings have gone on to help another person. She partners with local organisations including crisis centres, women’s refuges and homeless charities which means that the help she provides to her clients has an additional positive outcome as items are passed on to people who are in desperate circumstances.
To search for a homeless charity near you, visit: www.homeless.org.uk/homeless-england/search-near-me
What to do if you suddenly need help
“There are circumstances where we don’t get the opportunity to gradually address someone’s hoarding,” explains Jo, “such as an emergency admission to a care home or a sudden death. In the case of care home admission ask the person what belongings they most treasure – in one instance the gentleman simply wanted his photographs, his bible, some clothes and a couple of paintings to hang on the walls. It was a real privilege to work with him. In cases of sudden death, I would recommend working with another family member or seeking the services of someone specialising in hoarding disorders before you bring a house clearance company in.”
Find out more
Jo has such a wealth of experience that we can’t fit it all in one post, the great news is that she’s created some excellent resources to help people who want to find out more about, or need help with, hoarding.
Hoarding Disorders UK – for practical help, advice and support: www.hoardingdisordersuk.org
Understanding Hoarding – Jo’s book on how to better understand and respond to hoarding: http://amzn.eu/dtwSv5i
At Helpd, we provide a dedicated online introductory service that puts you in control of who delivers care to you and your loved ones. To find out more about what we do, visit www.helpd.co.uk
If you liked this guide, why not read another? https://www.helpd.co.uk/blog/six-apps-to-help-you-age-well/