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

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?

Expert Answer

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

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.