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Is it Hoarding or Clutter?

abiRiver Consulting specializes in what we call home organizing and move management. When we have clients transitioning from their current home to senior living, an apartment or downsizing into a new home, our clients are typically faced with a major life change and not knowing where to start in the transition. It feels overwhelming. They hope to have family or friends help but they also don’t want to be a burden. Many times we have clients who think they are hoarders or they are embarrassed by the packed cabinets and closets, but with decades of living in a home come decades of memories.


We don’t often meet the clients who are “true hoarders” like you might see on TV because they’ve been moved from the home already and a trust or estate has asked us to step in and help clear out the home. In these instances, we don’t just shovel and dump. We do sort through items for valuable things the client might want or need, sometimes they collected things that are valuable or held onto innocuous things they didn’t realize were valuable. But we also come across irreplaceable and sentimental items we set aside for the family.


For a grieving or estranged family, we do the same. It can be emotionally exhausting going through a home you grew up in and decisions need to be made.


More than anything, we are still advocates for our clients. From home organizing, to moving to listing and selling their home, we understand the anxieties that come with it all so we pride ourselves in taking the stress of a transition off the families shoulders and give them a positive start to their next chapter.





So what makes someone a hoarder? And how can we tell the difference between a hoarder and just an accumulation of memories and living?


Hoarding disorder is diagnosed when an individual has persistent difficulties discarding a large number of objects and experiences distress with discarding. This results in clutter and impairment in functioning. (DSM 5)

  • The two main components for official diagnosing are excessive acquisition (collecting, buying stealing) and lack of insight. Some fail to recognize they have a problem.

Previously, hoarding was thought to be a symptom of obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCD), but research has found that hoarding is quite distinct from OCD. People with HD vs OCD have different neurological functioning in their disorders and respond differently to treatment.


Common signs of hoarding (ranging from mild to severe):

  • Acquiring items not needed or no space to put them

  • Feeling a need to save items or upset by the thought of discarding

  • Build up of clutter to the point that rooms are unusable

  • Behavioral traits such as indecisiveness, perfectionism, avoidance, procrastination

  • A strong desire to keep possessions in sight

  • Common items: newspapers, clothes, paperwork, sentimental items, food, trash, animals


We try to address issues that apply to the client immediately and not what-if scenarios. We don’t want to use fear tactics into coercing them to clean up. Some things we might come across that we want to address with the client would be the current risks we are encountering.


Risks associated with Hoarding:


  • Increased risk of falls - If there are not clear paths, or items are cluttering the floor this is a real concern. Pointing out fall risks (broken handrails, papers across the floor, etc) and our worries gives them the opportunity to present a solution that they are in control of.

  • Injury or being trapped by shifting or falling items - items piled high, potentially falling off shelves or out of cupboards. How can we organize or reduce these items to make it safer to walk by/use?

  • Family conflicts - embarrassment or judgement alienates the client. Or kids might be taking advantage of the chaos for example. Taking an inventory of items is an opportunity to sort and organize while you go through the home.

  • Loneliness and social isolation - being a judgement free and compassionate space is important in these relationships.

  • Unsanitary conditions that pose a risk to health - expired food items, medicine, poorly handled food- they may have no idea and will offer you food not knowing or understanding the risks.

  • A fire hazard - smoke alarms with dead batteries, exits blocks, unknown combustible items buried.

  • Poor work performance - mental health controls our day to day living and seeing a therapist might be the first step to healthier living.

  • Legal issues, such as eviction - infestations, unsafe living conditions, odors, can all lead to eviction even if the client is non-problematic.


Do you think you or someone you know is struggling with a hoarding disorder or an accumulation of things in their life they are struggling to maintain or get under control? Here are some tips to consider when working together:


Setting small achievable goals is a good start with individuals with HD.

Some examples:

  • Schedule 15 minute increments to put items that have a designated spot away (dishes, clothes, newspapers), or work on one room at a time for 15 minutes.

  • Sort items that are rarely used out of sight away from items that are used often. Try to get rid (or out of sight) anything that hasn’t been used in the last year. This could trigger some distress so take it slow and don’t push. That could cause regression and distrust. Don’t ever throw away anything without permission.

  • When sorting clothes- if they are hung up, you can turn the hangers backwards. That is a good visual tool to determine what has and hasn’t been worn in the last few months.

  • Any tools, electronics, appliances can be marked and dated current date or date of last use. That is also a good visual tool to determine what is used often and what is not.

  • If there are any items that cause the person to pause or they have an emotional response, create a pile or box that is labeled (sort later). Come back to this box when tension is low and/or motivation is high.



Be kind to yourself if you are struggling with knowing where to start or what to let go of. Many of our clients call in distress and ashamed of the condition of their home. But more often than not, if they are aware of the task in front of them, they truly are not any worse off than the next client. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than we might hold our friends and family and when I walk into their home, I am not lying when I say - it is completely manageable and I won't run away!



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