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A cluttered room. Photo attributed to Christian Lopez on Flickr

It’s a rare person who doesn’t ‘hoard’ something. As we get older, it’s normal to accumulate more belongings, especially as we tend to form sentimental attachments to those possessions that we can’t bear to part with.

Most of us will admit to having an overflowing cupboard, drawer, or even a spare room, full of things that they keep meaning to clear out, but never do.

However, for some of us, the urge to hang on to the things that we no longer use can become a problem - and it can drastically impact on our quality of life when we run out of space to store it.

Is hoarding that dangerous?

In May 2013, hoarding was officially recognised as a medical diagnosis. This means that help is available on the NHS, although compulsive hoarding can be difficult to treat.

Psychologist Roxana Rudzik-Shaw, of RRS Counseling, says: 'People with belongings that encroach upon every inch of their living space are often identified as compulsive hoarders. This tends to get progressively worse over time as clutter becomes problematic, disorganised and unmanageable.'

What are the symptoms of hoarding?

Louise Barson, is a member of the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers, UK (APDO-UK). Her business, Silver Concierge, offers a decluttering service, and she regularly works with hoarders.

'I know that I’m dealing with a hoarder when a room in their house can’t be used for its intended purpose because it is piled high with clutter,' says Louise. 'This could be a kitchen, bathroom, living room or a corridor.

'There’s a great deal of guilt and shame associated with hoarding and many of those affected won’t ask for help until they are desperate.'

Why do we start hoarding?

Roxana Rudzik-Shaw says: 'The onset of hoarding behaviour can sometimes be associated with traumatic or significant life-changing events, such as death of a spouse or relative, deteriorating health or retirement.

'Accumulating "stuff" fills the void that has been left behind following such a trauma, allowing an individual to avoid dealing with the emotions associated with it.'

Research indicates that a person is more likely to become a hoarder if:

  • there is a family history of hoarding,
  • they have experienced deprivation,
  • they grew up in a cluttered home,
  • they have another mental health condition,
  • they are struggling to cope with a stressful life event,
  • they have a history of alcohol dependence or they are lonely.

Tackling the problem

Unfortunately, compulsive hoarding can be difficult to treat, particularly if the person affected is unwilling to admit that they have a problem.

It’s not wise to call in the council to help clear the rubbish away, or to pay for extra storage.

Neither of these help to tackle the root of the problem - and hoarders tend to become extremely stressed at the thought of someone making them throw their belongings away.

If someone close to you is affected, it’s important to approach the issue with sensitivity. Remember, what might look like useless clutter to you, is likely to be perceived as valuable treasure to a hoarder.

'It can be helpful to say that you’re concerned for their health and safety, or worried about their quality of life,' says Louise Barson. 'This means that you can talk about the issue without making them feel guilty or ashamed.'

If hoarding is a problem for you, ask your GP to refer to you to your local community mental health team, which may have a health professional who has some experience dealing with hoarding.

If a friend or loved one is affected, encourage them to talk to their GP, perhaps taking photographs which show the extent of the problem.

The main treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps the person to understand why the clutter has built up and helps them form a plan to tackle it until they become better at throwing things away.

Louise says that it’s best to take a methodical approach to the problem. 'There’s usually a trigger that motivates a hoarder to seek help. They could be motivated by health concerns, a house move, or a sense of shame and embarrassment.

'I’ve found that there’s often a great sense of relief and achievement when we begin to clear a room, and this is very motivating. This is when hoarders begin to understand the benefits of living without clutter.'

Louise's top tips for clearing clutter

  1. Focus on one area at a time, perhaps clearing access to the bathroom, kitchen or main living areas.
  2. Don’t move things from room to room. The aim is to sort through what’s there and decide what to keep, what to throw away or recycle and what to donate to charity.
  3. Set aside some time to work on your chosen area every day, even if it’s just half an hour. Establish a system and stick to a routine.
  4. Once things have been packed up, don’t leave them in the house - get rid of them straight away.
  5. If something is difficult to part with, put it in ‘review’ box and look at it again in a few weeks or months.

Your stories

Tina Samuels says that her father John, 73, has been hoarding for decades

She says that now he feels that getting rid of anything is a sign that he’s getting ready to die.

'My parents’ house is crammed with boxes, books and junk that dad has found in charity shops.

He had a stroke two years ago and, after that, he accepted that he needed help to clear the corridor as the paramedics found it hard to get inside.

The problem has got much worse over time, and his hoarding has accelerated in the last few years. Despite the health and safety risks, he still resists our attempts to sort it out.'

Judy Kingston says that her late mother, Phylis, refused to throw anything anyway.

When she moved in a retirement bungalow they filled two skips with the contents of her loft.

'The fridge was always full of food that was out of date, the kitchen cupboards were crammed with tinfoil containers that she’d keep "just in case" and worn out clothes were thrown on the "mending pile".

Mum was born in 1927 and lived through the war - she wouldn’t get rid of anything in case she might need it again.'

Judy’s mum died in August 2012, and she now wishes that she’d intervened before her mother’s hoarding became a health hazard.

“The house was so cluttered that mum would often trip and fall; she was on blood thinners following a stroke, so it would take weeks for the cuts and scrapes on her shins to heal.

We always thought that she’d be furious if we offered to help, but she burst into tears because she was so happy to be free of the clutter. I wish we’d done it sooner.'

Further information

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 678 1174