If you have a loved one with hoarding tendencies, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to cleaning and organizing their home. Hoarding is a serious psychological disorder that makes throwing away anything a challenge. Before you help a hoarder clean up, you should learn about the disorder and seek out professional help for them.

Once you’ve addressed the hoarding disorder with a mental health expert, you can use the steps below to begin helping a hoarder clean.

How to Identify Hoarding and Find Professional Help

First, take some time to learn about the disorder. Hoarding is a serious condition that can have emotional, social, financial and even physical effects on a person. The behaviors and situations below are hallmark signs of compulsive hoarding:

  • Avoids throwing away possessions that have no value to them or anyone else.
  • Experiences mild to severe anxiety about getting rid of anything.
  • Repeatedly adding to the hoard without recognition that there is a problem.
  • Rooms in their home can no longer be used for their intended purpose.
  • Possessions are negatively impacting their safety, health or hygiene.

Hoarding tendencies can vary in severity, but if you recognize more than one of these symptoms in your loved one, you need to find professional assistance before moving forward.

The International OCD Foundation can help you find a local therapist who specializes in hoarding disorder.

Helping a Hoarder Clean Up and Organize Their Home

Once you’ve brought in professional help and addressed the underlying issues of their hoarding tendencies, you can start helping your loved one clean their home.

Pro Tip: “If your loved one has been categorized as level three or higher on the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s Clutter-Hoarding Scale, you should work with an organizing professional who specializes in the disorder as well as a trained health professional to improve the living conditions.”

Rachel Sager, LCSW | Professional Organizer, Restart with Rachel

Assess the situation and decide if you can take this on without a professional organizer. Gauge the severity of the hoard, as well as how many people will help you with the cleanup. You should also consider your loved one’s personal progress. A professional organizer can be a huge help if your resources allow.

“A trained professional organizer with hands on experience working with large amounts of clutter will be able to provide sorting and organizing help as well as be able to provide structure to the clean out process,” says Rachel Seavey, Professional Organizer at Collector Care.

If you decide to work with an organizing professional, they can guide you through the process. If not, use the steps below to get started.

Pro Tip: “If you are dealing with a pressing timeline, it’s best to bring in a professional organizer to speed up the process.”

Geralin Thomas | Author of From Hoarding To Hope: Understanding People Who Hoard and How to Help Them

Step 1: Talk About Cleaning and Organizing

The first step to cleaning a hoarder’s home is starting a conversation with your loved one who is challenged with a hoarding disorder. Talk about your plans and emphasize the ideas of safety and confidentiality. Discuss how organizing their home will make it safer to live in and communicate that you’re only there for support, not to judge. Professional organizer Rachel Sager says it’s important to involve your mental health professional in these conversations as well.

“One of the most important tips for working with someone who is challenged with hoarding is to meet them where they are at. They are the owners of their stuff; they are the ones in charge of the process. Talk with the person to understand how [the items they are keeping] meet their end goal, whatever their end goal may be.”

Rachel Sager, LCSW | Professional Organizer, Restart with Rachel

When talking with a hoarder about your plans, use neutral language. “Words like ‘clutter’ or ‘unsanitary’ can trigger [someone], and cause them to become defensive… Using neutral, non-threatening language allows you and [your loved one] to communicate freely without pointing fingers,” says Maeve Richmond, founder and coach at Maeve’s Method.

Couple Discuss Cleaning a Hoarder’s Home

Step 2: Make a Plan

Once all parties involved have agreed it is time to start cleaning the hoarder’s home, you will need to create an action plan to complete the project. Work with your loved one to create a plan they approve of and are ready to attempt.

Follow these tips for making a plan to clean a hoarder’s home:

  1. Determine criteria for getting rid of items: Sit down with your loved one and help them create a list of criteria to determine if something can be thrown away. Remember that these are their belongings and they are in charge of this process. Write down the criteria so everyone assisting can refer to them as needed. An example could be: All mail older than six months can be thrown away.
  2. Make a schedule: Decide the order you will tackle the rooms and how much time you’ll plan to spend in each room. Remember, tackling rooms individually is much more manageable than tackling the whole house.
  3. Set goals: Setting goals is an important step in helping someone with hoarding tendencies. Set concrete and attainable goals to keep everyone motivated. A goal could be organizing their items and moving them to an area of the house that can be used for storage; clearing enough space in entrances and hallways to improve accessibility and safety; or clearing a space where they will feel comfortable hosting company.

“It’s really about managing expectations. If you’re going to DIY it, you need to go in with correct expectations. It’s not about fixing the person. It’s about buying time for you both to improve the situation temporarily.”

Maeve Richmond | Founder and Coach at Maeve’s Method

Step 3: Develop a Strategy for Waste Removal

When working with someone who has a hoarding disorder to clean their home, you will most likely be throwing away a lot of waste. As you declutter the home, you will need to have a fast and simple solution for moving the debris out of the home. Renting a dumpster is a good option for a project of this size. You can take your time filling the dumpster and have it removed as soon as your cleanout is complete. Other options for waste removal include curbside pickup and junk removal services.

Keep in mind that someone with a hoarding disorder may be tempted to remove items from the debris pile if left alone.

Step 4: Begin Organizing the Home

With your plan and waste removal strategy in place, you are ready to being cleaning and organizing the home. “Cleaning and organizing are two different things. First declutter the home, then organize and finally, begin cleaning,” says Geralin Thomas, a professional organizer.

Follow your plan and go room by room. Using your pre-determined list of criteria, identify and throw away worthless clutter and create piles for items to be kept and items to be donated.

Pro tip: “Discuss how each item being saved helps them meet their end goal.”

Rachel Sager, LCSW | Professional Organizer, Restart with Rachel

Helping someone with a hoarding disorder is incredibly challenging. It will be an emotionally exhausting process, especially when you are working with someone you love. Remember to stay positive and be patient. Take frequent breaks and continue to have positive and encouraging conversations with your loved one.

“The best goal for anyone is just to manage expectations, and ultimately to proceed with no expectations. Working with a hoarder and helping them to live better in their space is really about not fixing the problem but is to find some kind of happy medium where you can make yourself feel better and alleviate the situation while also understanding that the room you cleared out might not last for very long. The solutions you created may not be long term.”

Maeve Richmond | Founder and Coach at Maeve’s Method

Have a hoarding success story? We’d love to hear it in the comments section below.