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How can I convince my hoarding parent to let go of junk?

15 answers | Last updated: Jul 28, 2014
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Q
A fellow caregiver asked...
My mother is a hopeless packrat. Her home is piled with National Geographic issues dating back to 1972, bundles of junk mail, and old shopping bags. She can no longer take care of her home, and I need to move her into a smaller apartment, but she refuses to throw anything away. How do I convince her to let go of all this junk?
 

Answers
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94% helpful
answered...

To decide on an approach, you first need to figure out whether your mother is a pack rat or a hoarder.

See also:
8 Tips to Help With Cleaning Your Parents' Stuff

See all 116 questions about Moving
A pack rat likes to hold on to things and has a lot of stuff that, to us, may look like junk. But the pack rat can be reasoned with and will eventually understand that she needs to throw some things away.

For a hoarder, on the other hand, every personal object in her territory has special meaning and becomes part of her persona. It's extremely difficult to get a hoarder to downsize at all. They often have obsessive-compulsive disorder and require treatment from a mental health professional.

You can tell the difference between a pack rat and a hoarder simply by looking at your mother's home. A pack rat will have a lot of stuff, but rooms will still function in the way they're supposed to. In the case of hoarding, almost every room of the house will no longer serve its function -- you won't even be able to get into most rooms because they're so crammed with junk. When you suggest to a hoarder that she get rid of, say, that paper bag on the coffee table, she'll become agitated and anguished and offer 22 reasons why she couldn't possibly do that. If your mother is a hoarder, it's best to connect her with a mental health professional before attempting to throw anything away.

If your mother is a pack rat, not a hoarder, give her time to come to terms with the fact that she'll need to let go of some things. Start with what's easiest for her and work your way to the hard stuff. A lot of the resistance she's putting up may be an attempt to keep some control over her situation. Allow her to keep her most prized possessions to ease her anxiety.

Ultimately, your mother will need to come to her own decisions about what to keep in order to feel good about the move. But if necessary, you can call in a professional mover or organizer to help with the sorting process. Sometimes an impartial person who's not caught up in the parent-child dynamic can help get the job done more quickly and efficiently.

 

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76% helpful
cthcth1 answered...

Good points re hoarder vs Packrat. We had a short time to accomplish our move, with my father being hospitalized unexpectedly and my mother's health being fragile. My brothers and I chose to pack up the things that required too many decisions for what they could endure and move them into my garage. My parents committed to sorting a minimum of one box per day. It's been 3 months since the move and there are no longer piles of boxes in the house. The garage still needs sorting, but is functional enough to take the time to do it at my father's pace. I admit that I had days of feeling completely overwhelmed, and my mantra became "This, too, will pass." The positive side of this method proved to be worth it. My parents remain in control of what they keep or jettison, have had time and my encouragement when needed with the decision process, and are settling in with more laughter and enjoyment all around than if we had taken the sorting into our own hands. It also helped that we defined the space each of us was to occupy in my house, and they are free to keep whatever they want... as long as it will fit into their space. This agreement has kept it "real" and kept me from feeling pushed out of my home. Our attitude is that we share a home, not that they moved in with me in my home. My primary objective was to facilitate them keeping their dignity as they transitioned this stage of interdependence in life.

 

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17% helpful
An anonymous caregiver answered...

My two sisters and I are dealing with a similar situation. Based on the above answer my mother is a definite hoarder with a house that is falling apart. She has already lost her insurance because she won't let inspectors in to get an assessment and we fear the neighbors are complaining which could prompt action from a governmental agency. The last time I was in the house was close to 10 years ago. She claims she is working on it and I believe her but she can no longer tackle the big items like a room that is walkable and instead cleans out and organizes kitchen cabinets. It is out of control at this point and we are desperately seeking advice. She knows it is not good but whenever we try to discuss doing something she shuts down, refuses to discuss and her anxiety level rockets. It has definitely gotten to the point of no return - not sure how much of the house can even be saved which is sad because it was a very nice 4 bedroom house that we grew up in. But of course most important is my mother's health and if we can get this taken care of it will be a huge weight off of her.

 

57% helpful
PSDJ answered...

We deal with this issue on several levels within my husband's side of the family as well as mine. One quote that made sense to me from some time back is that "when the stuff that reminds someone of people they care about becomes more important than the people themselves, that person is a hoarder". It is a mental illness, which defies reason and logic. My husband's ex wife and the mother of his three grown kids is so bad that she has made a mess of her entire life and home, which she is losing to the bank. Her house is filthy and my stepdaughter won't take her little kids there because she thinks it will make them sick. This woman has a college degree, was a tenured public school teacher and at 62 lost her job because "she didn't like doing the paperwork". She has phobias out the wazoo - bugs, people wanting to steal things from her, what she will eat - the list goes on. No one wants to be "hard" on her and can't understand why she won't do what she needs to do. She has lost all of her social circle, has no income, has drained her home of any worth by taking out loans on it and not taking care of it, and is now buried under her mass of crap while her whole family, which includes my husband and me, worry about her and don't know what to do. The fact is, with someone like this unfortunately there is no nice way to do this. They are ill and in danger and need adult protective services. Our main role in this is to support my husband's daughters in trying to resolve her issues, because she is such a huge burden on them. If it were up to us, we would call the authorities and have her Baker Acted, but we can't do that even though her need is clear. This has to come from her children, who just have a terrible time actually admitting to themselves their mother is such a mess. She has kept every kindergarten paper, every hair bow, every little thing that is somehow "significant" to her, but the children who generated those memories are in their 30's and don't want to be around her! Any rational person would see that the people matter more than the things, but she is not rational. This is something for professionals. I am not sure "pack rat" is a medical term but I know "hoarder" is.

 

40% helpful
PSDJ answered...

After the above post I wondered if pack rat was actually a clincial term and basically what I read is that actually on it's own, neither is hoarding. It falls under OCD. If that's the case, arent't they both the same thing, with levels of being extreme determining which you are? If so, medication and therapy might be the only solution, right? Thinking about the person I mentioned and really the others in our extended family who tend to "collect" and be emotional about inanimate things are at different crossroads of their lives when it seems to "flare up" the most. But those tendencies are always there. My sister, for example, and her husband have moved twice in the last year due to his job instability and have put so much truly worthless looking stuff in storage "pods", which cost them money they don't have, to keep. Being a person who gets rid of things once I discover I don't need them usually within a year, I cannot relate to their behavior. Also, it doesn 't appear that they will have room for this stuff anytime in the next few years, so they will spend a lot of money keeping it rather than saving for the future with that money, or helping their kids go to school, etc. There is a frustrating element to this that makes me feel "OK, I guess you are going to sink or swim". I do understand needing to help people keep their "dignity" but when they can't navigate real life due to how this weighs them down, financially or physically, where is there dignity anyway? Living in a stinking, dangerous environment doesn't seem very dignified to me.

 

33% helpful
kzar answered...

That's a real problem! 99% you might no be able to convince her! The only way to convince people like this is to not tell them/command them to throw it out or you will be in trouble. The best is to show you are interested with it and you want to see if what are the things you may want to take home with you. I had patient who keeps things that were 40-50 years old documents, newspapers, and tapes and what not. He got very angry if they tell him that those stuff were already useless. And he told them, who are they to tell him that. Because he believed one day when he gets better he'll get to them and read them, or listen, blah, blah... However, he kept telling me that if anyone will tell him they are interested with his stuff he was very happy to give it to them, because for him those were "golds."
The problem with us people is we get annoyed by some else doing because we thought it is not right. How old is your mother now if you don't mind? Do you think she can outlive you? If she doesn't want to let go, leave it, she got only a few years to live, so make the best of it by not being annoyed by those "precious" positions she got.

 

50% helpful
BMW60 answered...

I dealt with all these same issues with my mother. She told a Dr. that she would miss her things when she moved into an assisted living-but not the people around her. When she fell and the rescue squad could not come into her living room to rescue her-I told her that we needed to do something. My brother and I rented a storage space for a year and she had to sort through her things there. She did a great job of letting go. We still had other issues and are working through them.

The book that has helped me is called, "The Borderline Mother." It doesn't deal with the hording issues, but some other traits that may be an underlying cause.

 

BasilofDevonUK answered...

I am in UK. One poster mentioned intervention by a government agency. A similar situation arose with a friend who was a dreadful hoarder to the extent that mice and rats had moved in and the place was a fire hazard. The local council eventually served notice to clear the place. He stated that he would do so and I helped him. On a days visit we would fill about 15 black sacks with newspapers and the like and put them out for collection. On the next vist I would find that they had been brought in again "to go through" [he had not. In the end it came down to the local authority descending with police and forcing entry. He kicked up such a row that he was taken to the local police station and detained while they cleared. Within a year it was as bad as ever!

 

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50% helpful
An anonymous caregiver answered...

Mom died in June and appointed me her Personal Rep of the Estate. During the time after my dad had passed away she had accumulated items from her deceased sisters. They never threw anything away. It was a daunting task. Mom remarried and her new husband sold his home, moved in, bringing with him, all of his stuff. He never threw anything away. I'm still in the mist of clearing out the home. There was too much for one person to have a garage sale, so I hired an Estate Sale service. It was well worth their percentage to help with pricing, haggling. I donated many items. I'm still in the mist of clearing out the home. I made a promise to my son, I would try not to put him through what I am going through. I feel like I'm being punished....

 

doctorchristi answered...

To: Anonymous caregiver When your parent said she was working on the house needs, did you bother to go there and pay for a repair person to fix what was needing to be done. Older homers do NOT last forever and things break. Did you go there and repair the things broken for her? How dare you say she is not in her right mind. Have you had home problems in your home? Who fixes things when they break? YOU? Or where does the money come from to pay even for the supplies to fix something, never mind paying someone to come in to fix it. And who can you trust? Did you offer to attend to all the problems your parent is facing or paying for the repairs? Yes I already asked that. And you claim she did not let the insurance companies in, yeah right. Maybe they are worthless. Most companies do not pay for ANY repairs. They claim it is normal wear and not an insurance problem. So your parent probably tried all the avenues to have their home not fall down around them, short of asking the family to please step in with finances and physical help in fixing things but did not want to be a burden on your life so they didn't. Disappointed in your comment, for you did nothing to actually help BEFORE things got bad, and now make these remarks

 

50% helpful
BMW60 answered...

doctorchristi-Please be a little gentler in your answer. Many of us have tried your suggestions with an older parent. My mother would not allow certain repairs to be done. My brother and I would hire someone to repair problems and she would not allow the person to come into her house. I would be with the repair person, and she would start an argument with us, although she had initially agreed to the repair. Her house was floor to ceiling clutter and she would refuse help in sorting and de-cluttering. The law was on her side, as she has certain rights, until she fell and the rescue squad could not get inside. I was only able to convince her then that something must be done. My brother and I rented a storage space to clear out some room in order to sort the rest. There were frequent arguments about how many things she needed and how much she could take to an assisted living facility. The assisted living is constantly dealing with her hoarding behavior. There are not easy answers for this problem. Please do not get so angry with the children of hoarders. This is a complex problem with no easy solutions.

 

Shadow769 answered...

I work for an extreme hoarder. After a year of trying to get her to at the very least, throw out 'the trash', without success, I got creative. I went down to the local fire department and spoke to the chief. He stopped by her house saying he was doing safety checks for the elderly in the neighborhood and would like to introduce himself. He then proceeded to explain, although polite, very matter of fact, what 'could' happen if her house remained in the state it was. He began with the safety issues and ended with the state stepping in and putting her in a state facility and taking away her home to pay for it. If she could not take care of her home, she could not take care of herself. If that were the case, the state would do it for her. Well, thank God for a man in uniform! Her house looks close to a pack rats now instead of an extreme hoarder. She did not like what he said, but she listened. I think the chief was charming, yet alarming. And that's exactly what she needed. The uniform helped too.

 

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An anonymous caregiver answered...

I am from Michigan. And so what does one, with all the stuff, do after the death of the parent. When you are the PR of the Estate, the siblings are angry with you (didn't let you know mom had even died and they were with her). One sibling still living in mom's home, has characteristics of isolation and hostility, the other uncommunicative. I had an Estate Sale, still so much remains. Sibling is nasty, won't let me back in home. I'm in the middle of Eviction process. I have not grieved. It's been nine months since mom died.

 

BMW60 answered...

Dear anonymous-Hang in there. If you can go to a counselor or a clergy person for some relief, do so. You have a lot of company dealing with the same issues. You can throw things away. You don't have to keep them. My mother had given me many things over the years, and I as I go through them, I can let them go. She is still living, but in an assisted living and still has too much in her room. I will be moving soon, so I need to downsize. I am sorting through and letting go. I have checked with several charities and they are taking what they need and I am tossing the rest. It is freeing. I am keeping what I really need, but I am letting go of the rest.

 

100% helpful
Karaandkids answered...

I was on the verge of being a hoarder, I was just past the pack rat stage I'd say.. It all started over 10 yrs ago, I got pregnant with my now almost 11 yr old son. I did NOT have much growing up ( my mother was a single working parent ) that paid the bills and provided all the food for her and I. Bills and cost pf living increased. A lot of my friends got me baby shower gifts and clothing for my son, etc... I saved EVERYTHING!!!!! I mean every shirt, pair of undies, toys, etc.... because I was affraid that I would not have the money to replace them if I got rid of them,,,, I had more children and saved their stuff too.... I mean TONS OF STUFF. I guess I was an organized pack rat???!!! I got those plastic storage containers and labeled EVERY one of them for example boys newborn, 3-6 mos, etc.... and had them all the way through size 16 in big boys and girls...It was horrible because my kids were only in size 10 in big boys at the largest size yet I had the next 6 yrs in a container.... I told myself I was saving money buying off season clothing at discounted prices way in advance like this....I used ebay alot as well. I now have 4 children and recently moved from a 2 story house with attic and basement to a 2 bedroom trailer.... with a small shed....this was MY wake up call... the move was from pa to ohio and I had the biggest available uhaul possible they offered. I did 3 completely packed you could NOT fit anything else in it trips with it and I still had about 25% of the house left to bring.....I did 13 car loads and 4 FULL tanks of gas in addition to the uhaul trips. It hit me "what the hell am I doing here"? So I went back to where we were still getting our stuff from and got ANY left neccesities such as missed pots and pans, etc...and I drug the rest to the curb there...we were in the burough they take unlimited trash. I to this day still think what did I do? I should have gotten ___________....but I look around here and realize there is TOOOOOOO much stuff here already. I have been downsizing for the last 5 months or more. And I really mean this... I seriously think I must have lost my mind keeping all of this crap. Then I think 5 months ago I snapped and just started throwing stuff away in a manic fashion... It is very hard for me to discard and even harder for me to get up and find the strength and energy to even start doing so... I had stuff boxes, bags etc... stacked to the ceiling in our living room in here after the move...That is finally gone and sorted... I have done 6 FULL car loads of clothing to the yellow metal bins and donated them...this is NO JOKE... I bought 2 more big outside garbage cans for trash night. I now have 5 LARGE trash cans, our trash here is unlimited as well... If I don;t have those filled by trash night I get pissed at myself for not sorting enough...this is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I also suffer from depression and anxiety...was on medications for them but after I lost my insurance I can no longer afford the medicines...which makes it tough on me...

Six nights back I redid one of the bedrooms that my oldest two boys share with the bunk bed in it... there were three toy boxes just overflowing with toys... my ten almost 11 year old son got very mad when I started discarding things in his room ( I think he suffers from this disorder too, which is my fault) so I said to him do you want to help me? He screamed NO I HATE YOU at me for throwing my stuff away.... I said Zack, before I take ANYTHING to the trash cans outside I will put it in the kitchen and you go into your room and tell me what is missing that you want and if you name something I bagged up I WILL GIVE IT BACK. He said fine and went into the livingroom to watch tv. Six garbage bags later of "babyish toys" and clothing that were missing buttons or broken....I asked him to come back into his room. He gasped and said wow it looks nice... I asked him what is missing? I handed him ALL of his pokemon cards, toys, figurines, bey blade toys, and transformers that I put in a nice pokemon tim that I found at the bottom of one toy box.... he looked at me and said I dont know whats gone mom but it looks nice, thank you. I said you are welcome I love you and I would NEVER get rid of stuff I know you liked or played with... I put the 6 bags in my trunk and backseat of my car and left them locked in there because it wasnt trash day yet... this also gave him more time to think of anything he was missing and have it returned to him. Yesterday was trash night and those bags were discarded... his room looks fabulous and litterally takes 15 minutes to clean from top to bottom including vaccuming and dusting...its amazing because after seeing the before and after ( i took pictures on my phone ) I am shocked and have the willpower to do more....

Sometimes it takes a reality check to slap you across the face before you do it.... wether thats from someone reporting you as mentioned in above comments or by something else happening that causes you to have to get your butt in gear. This is a VERY long process that is more emotionally draining then physically. But when emotions start flying so does your will power, it leaves and you honestly dont have the strength to do it alone yet you dont want ANYONES help.... what worked for me as well was having a friend over (not to talk about this or tell me what to do, but to just sit there and bs with me while I did dishes etc... people tend to pick up or tidy up when company is coming wether your place is clean or not and while they are there your brain is like omg this and this is not done so you do little things while they are there and then its done and you dont realize how much youve done while they were there until they have left and it hits you. if the person is a true friend they wont get mad if they sit at your kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee talking with you while you do the dishes... feel free to contact me at Karaandkids@gmail.com if you want. I am a 27 yr old mother who loves to chit chat :)

Good luck to those who suffer from this and for those who are trying to help someone with this problem...

 

 
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