How to Help a Hoarder Declutter and Clean Up

Imagine walking into a home where every available space is filled with items stacked floor to ceiling, where navigating through rooms becomes a challenge, and where the idea of parting with any item causes distress. This is the reality for many hoarders, and it can be overwhelming for them and their loved ones.

Hoarding is not just a matter of being messy or disorganized; it is a complex psychological condition that requires understanding, empathy, and a structured approach to address. Whether you’re a friend, family member, or someone struggling with hoarding yourself, this guide will provide you with the tools and knowledge needed to tackle the issue head-on, creating a safer and more comfortable living environment.

Understanding Hoarding

Psychological Underpinnings

Hoarding is often rooted in deeper psychological issues. It is commonly linked to anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For some, the accumulation of items provides a sense of security or a way to cope with trauma or loss. Understanding these underlying factors is crucial for anyone looking to help a hoarder.

  • Common Causes: Trauma, significant loss, or chronic stress can trigger hoarding behavior.
  • Associated Disorders: OCD and anxiety disorders frequently accompany hoarding, making professional mental health support essential.

Recognizing that hoarding is not a choice but a symptom of a larger issue can foster empathy and patience, which are vital in the decluttering process.

Behavioral Patterns

Hoarders often exhibit specific behaviors that distinguish their condition from mere disorganization or collecting.

  • Signs and Symptoms: Persistent difficulty discarding items, regardless of their value; accumulating items to the point that living spaces are unusable; and experiencing significant distress at the thought of discarding items.
  • Difference from Collecting: While collectors typically organize and display their items, hoarders usually have disorganized and excessive clutter that interferes with daily functioning.

Understanding these behaviors can help in developing a tailored approach to assist a hoarder effectively.

Preparing to Help

Educate Yourself

Before diving into the decluttering process, it’s important to educate yourself about hoarding. Research the condition, read books, and consult reliable online resources to understand the best practices and strategies.

  • Resources: Books like “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things” by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, and organizations like the International OCD Foundation provide valuable insights.

Approaching the Hoarder

Approaching someone with hoarding behavior requires sensitivity and care. The goal is to build trust and open a line of communication without causing defensiveness or shame.

  • Communication Strategies: Use non-judgmental language, express empathy, and listen actively. Avoid making demands or ultimatums.
  • Building Trust: Show genuine concern for their well-being, and emphasize that you are there to support, not to criticize or force them into unwanted actions.

Setting Realistic Goals

Setting small, achievable goals can make the overwhelming task of decluttering more manageable. Create a plan that breaks down the process into bite-sized steps, ensuring that progress is visible and celebrated.

  • Decluttering Plan: Outline specific areas to address, set timelines, and define what success looks like for each step.

Professional Help

Therapists and Counselors

Professional mental health support is often crucial in addressing the root causes of hoarding. Therapists can provide coping strategies and behavioral therapies tailored to the individual’s needs.

  • Finding a Therapist: Look for mental health professionals specializing in hoarding or OCD. Websites like Psychology Today can help locate specialists in your area.

Professional Organizers

Professional organizers experienced in dealing with hoarding can offer practical assistance and emotional support. They bring expertise in creating organizational systems and can work alongside mental health professionals to provide comprehensive support.

  • Choosing the Right Professional: Look for certified organizers with experience in hoarding cases, and check reviews or ask for references to ensure they are a good fit.

Creating a Decluttering Plan


Begin by assessing the extent of hoarding. This involves understanding which areas are most affected and prioritizing them based on safety and functionality.

  • Evaluating Hoarding Levels: Use tools like the Clutter Image Rating Scale to gauge the severity of the hoarding and identify critical areas to address first.

Setting Boundaries and Goals

Establish clear boundaries and realistic goals to guide the decluttering process. This helps in managing expectations and keeping the project on track.

  • Time Management: Create a schedule that includes regular decluttering sessions, allowing for breaks to avoid burnout.
  • Achievable Objectives: Set specific, measurable goals such as “clear the kitchen counters” or “organize the bedroom closet,” and celebrate small victories to maintain motivation.

Practical Decluttering Steps

Sorting and Categorizing

Effective decluttering involves systematic sorting and categorizing of items. This process helps in making decisions about what to keep, donate, sell, recycle, or discard.

  • Categories:
    • Keep: Items that are essential or have significant emotional value.
    • Donate: Items in good condition that can benefit others.
    • Sell: Valuable items that can be sold for extra income.
    • Recycle: Items that can be responsibly recycled.
    • Trash: Items that are broken, expired, or have no use.

The Decluttering Process

Tackle the decluttering process room by room to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to make visible progress.

  • Room-by-Room Approach: Start with less emotionally charged areas like the bathroom or kitchen. Gradually move to more challenging spaces like bedrooms or living rooms.
  • Techniques: Use methods like the KonMari method, which focuses on keeping items that “spark joy,” or the Four-Box Method, which involves sorting items into four boxes: keep, donate, trash, and relocate.

Dealing with Sentimental Items

Sentimental items often pose the biggest challenge in decluttering. Approach these items with care and consider alternatives to keeping them.

  • Handling Emotional Attachments: Discuss the memories associated with the items and why they are meaningful.
  • Alternatives: Photographing items or creating a scrapbook can preserve memories without retaining physical clutter.

Cleaning Up

Cleaning Strategies

Once decluttering is underway, deep cleaning can begin. This includes sanitizing surfaces, removing dust and allergens, and ensuring a safe living environment.

  • Deep Cleaning Tips: Use non-toxic cleaning products, address areas that have been inaccessible due to clutter, and ensure proper ventilation during cleaning.
  • Disposal of Hazardous Materials: Safely dispose of items like expired medications, batteries, and chemicals following local regulations.

Maintenance and Organization

Implementing organizational systems and regular maintenance routines is essential to prevent re-hoarding.

  • Organizational Systems: Use storage solutions like shelving units, bins, and drawer organizers to keep items tidy and accessible.
  • Maintenance Schedule: Establish a weekly or monthly cleaning schedule to maintain order and prevent clutter from accumulating again.

Emotional Support and Encouragement

Providing Ongoing Support

Continuous emotional support is crucial for helping a hoarder maintain progress. Be patient and understanding, acknowledging the difficulty of the process.

  • Ways to Offer Support: Check-in regularly, offer help without being intrusive, and provide positive reinforcement for efforts made.

Celebrating Progress

Celebrate milestones, no matter how small, to reinforce positive behavior and motivate continued efforts.

  • Acknowledging Milestones: Recognize achievements like clearing a room or maintaining a clean space for a certain period.
  • Reward Systems: Create a system of rewards, such as a special outing or a small gift, to celebrate progress and keep motivation high.

Preventing Relapse

Building Healthy Habits

Developing healthy habits and routines is essential for preventing a return to hoarding behavior.

  • Developing Routines: Encourage regular decluttering sessions, mindful purchasing habits, and frequent reassessments of kept items.

Continuous Therapy and Support

Ongoing therapy and participation in support groups can provide the necessary encouragement and accountability to maintain a clutter-free lifestyle.

  • Mental Health Support: Regular sessions with a therapist can help manage the underlying issues that contribute to hoarding.
  • Support Groups: Local or online support groups offer a sense of community and shared experiences, providing additional encouragement and advice.


Books and Articles

Educate yourself further with books and articles that offer insights and strategies for dealing with hoarding.

  • Recommended Reading: “Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding” by David Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee.

Online Resources

Utilize websites, forums, and online communities for additional support and information.

  • Websites: International OCD Foundation, Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Support Groups

Find local and online support groups for both hoarders and their families.

  • Finding Groups: Use resources like Meetup or local mental health organizations to locate support groups in your area.


Helping a hoarder declutter and clean up is a challenging yet rewarding process that requires patience, empathy, and a structured approach. By understanding the psychological roots of hoarding, preparing effectively, seeking professional help, and following a detailed decluttering plan, you can make a significant positive impact on the hoarder’s life. Remember, progress may be slow, but with ongoing support and encouragement, a healthier and more organized living environment is achievable. Celebrate each milestone, and continue to build habits that prevent relapse, ensuring a brighter, clutter-free future.

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