How to approach helping hoarders

Woman talking to her mother

Dear Fiona: My in-laws are hoarders and need a good clear-out. Where do we start?

The problem
“My parents-in-law are lovely people and I get on so well with them. They live in a small cottage in the countryside and I love to go and see them. But the problem is, they never throw anything away. In the past few years, I’ve noticed the same pairs of shoes on the porch, unworn, and new additions simply stacked on top.

“They have a garage filled to the brim with bits and pieces, old fridges and white goods that they think will come in handy one day. That day has never arrived – but unfortunately another kind of day has. My father-in-law was recently taken ill with a heart condition, and they now need to clear some space for medical equipment in their home.

Read: Has hoarding taken over your home?

“My mother-in-law sees it as a hassle and hasn’t a clue where to start but needs to do so quickly, so my father-in-law can come home. I’d like to help her sort through their things and make it a more comfortable, cleaner environment for them both. The thing is though, she doesn’t know where to begin, and neither do I.

“I’m afraid of offending her, but it just has to be done – so how can we start, and how can we make this manageable for my mother-in-law and me?”

Fiona says
“Unfortunately, people who are hoarders often find it very hard to break the habit. The idea that something will be useful ‘one day’ is like an obsession that’s hard to break. You don’t say how old your in-laws are but I’m guessing they’re getting on in years, so you could appeal to your mother-in-law on the basis that she needs to start now, otherwise it will all get too much for her.

“Kate Ibbotson, founder of the A Tidy Mind, is a professional declutterer and life coach. She believes that if we have too much ‘stuff’ and live in disorder, we lose track of what is and isn’t important. It sounds very much as if your in-laws, and in particular your mother-in-law, have lost track of what is important here – and that is getting her husband home with the equipment he needs.

Read: When hoarding becomes a health problem and how to talk about it

“Ms Ibbotson advises not trying to declutter the whole house all at once, but to pick an area to start and do it in small chunks. Set aside just 30 minutes or no more than a couple of hours and focus on contained spaces, such as drawers or cupboards first. Helping your mother-in-law get just one drawer or one cupboard clear might motivate her to do more on her own.

“Look out for op shops that are asking for certain donations. You mention the multiple shoes in the porch and if that’s one thing a charity particularly needs, they may be more motivated to part with them.

“Don’t be daunted by the old fridges and white goods in the garage either, as suitable furniture and electricals can be donated through many free home collection services. Perhaps knowing that the things she is donating will help to fund research into conditions such as heart disease might also help to motivate your mother-in-law.

Read: Get the clutter under control for a healthier you

“Moving forward though, encourage her – and your father-in-law – to think in terms of one in, one out. Each time you buy something, let go of something else, which not only prevents a build-up of clutter, it will make them really consider each new purchase. Letting go of things they no longer want or need will help give them a new lease of life, and could help others who might need these things instead.”

If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to [email protected] for advice. All letters are treated in complete confidence and, to protect this privacy, Fiona is unable to pass on your messages to other readers. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

– With PA

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