Dear Family Resource,
My mom was always a collector. Salt and pepper shakers, dolls, Christmas decorations, you get the picture. When I was a kid she displayed her collections or stored them in the garage but recently her “collecting” has exploded. From the front door, I can see mail, stacks of magazines, containers, and random stuff she buys at garage sales. She has automatic bill payment so her utilities and mortgage get paid, but I’m worried that she’s gone from a collector with storage problems to a full-blown hoarder. I want to help her, but she’s defensive and won’t let me in the house. Should I intervene?
~Worried Son

Dear Worried Son,
From your description, it sounds like your mom is hoarding, not collecting. She’s gone from being organized and proud of her belongings to collecting clutter possibly at the expense of her health and safety. She is embarrassed about the situation and feels uncomfortable letting you in.

Help and intervention are very difficult. The tendency to hoard usually begins at a young age and becomes more severe in adulthood. It can become a life-long struggle. Hoarders are not particularly interested in their possessions, they simply cannot tolerate throwing things away. Hoarding can run in families and frequently accompanies other mental health disorders like depression, social anxiety, bipolar, and impulse control problems.

Compulsive hoarding can be treated with the help of an experienced clinician or coach. You cannot help your mother unless she is motivated to de-clutter. According to the International OCD Foundation, a person trying to help a hoarder cannot help unless the person hoarding is willing to discuss the situation and even then, the helper must:

  • Be sympathetic and try to understand the hoarder’s difficulty with discarding or parting with their possessions.
  • Not try to take over, but rather be a team player and work alongside the person who is hoarding.
  • Never throw anything away or try to organize without the person’s consent.
  • Encourage safety by moving piles away from doorways and paths.

Even if you hire a cleaning service and succeed in de-cluttering your mother’s home the problem will still be there. In fact, it may exasperate it. I suggest you show empathy and try to understand your mother’s situation and gain her trust. From there, you should seek help and resources from your local mental health agencies.
~Family Resource