If you’ve ever tried to help anyone else clean their house out, you know how physically difficult it is, even if the person hasn’t hoarded things. From personal experience, however, I can safely say that helping a hoarder clean things out is about 3 times as physically exhausting and about twice as emotionally exhausting–for all parties!
So, if a hoarder in your life ever asks you to help them with their home, you can rely on the following road-tested guide as you work. This will keep you both less frustrated and more productive (and won’t destroy your friendship along the way)!
While They Sort, You Clean
One of the most irritating things about cleaning out a hoard is finding all the collected dust and dirt all over items, the floor, and even the walls sometimes (depending on how stacked-up the hoard is). When I’m trying to clean out my own collection of stuff, having to dust, sweep, and wipe off everything is a HUGE distraction from my real task. So, as the hoarder’s assistant, your primary task is to clean–dust surfaces, mop, sweep and/or vacuum newly exposed floor areas, wash or wipe off usable items, etc.
This takes a lot of the “cleaning” pressure off your hoarder friend so they can focus on the monumental task of sorting and purging items; it also serves as a confidence boost, as the hoarder sees progress being made. (Plus, it keeps you from having to figure out what to do with all these items which have no meaning to you–see next point.)
Don’t EVER Throw Anything Away Without Hoarder’s Permission
Speaking as a hoarder myself, this is my worst nightmare: somebody coming into my house like a tornado of cleaning power, and throwing away EVERYTHING in sight, no matter what it means to me. You might think a brutal purging spree is “just what they need to get started,” but I’m telling you, that’s a friendship-destroying move right there.
Clean and straighten to your heart’s content, but do not throw ANYTHING away until the hoarder has had a chance to check it. Something that looks worthless to you may not be worthless to them, and it will make things a lot less emotional if you just let them deal with it. One helpful tip: if you come across items that look more like garbage
(old receipts, broken/dented objects, crumpled papers with writing on them, etc), create a separate box for them so that they’re not just scattered atop more obviously keepable items. (If they’re having difficulty getting rid of even a wadded-up food wrapper or some crumpled gift wrap, however, gently encourage them to think about what use the item would have.)
Allow Breaks in the Cleaning Process
Both you and your hoarder friend will need breaks fairly often, due to physical exhaustion if nothing else. Breaks are necessary, otherwise your energy will flag early on and both of you will be sorely tempted to quit. When you take breaks, by the way, leave the room you’re working on and go somewhere cleaner, even if that means leaving the house so you’re not just sitting there surrounded by all the work you need to help with. This will refresh both of you, and make the process a lot easier.
Do Not Judge or Ridicule–Just Help and Listen
For a person who is trying to recover from hoarding, a purging process is not only physically demanding, but emotionally distressing. The hoarder can feel shame that they “let the house get this bad,” or they can spend the whole time fearing that they’ll “accidentally throw away something important.” (These are in quotes because I’ve thought these very phrases myself.) Hoarding is often a secretive, intensely private habit, and when another person becomes privy to the secret, it can leave the hoarder feeling painfully vulnerable.
As their assistant, then, you need to be as soothing and trustworthy as possible as you work alongside them. Your hoarder friend will need a lot of support and reassurance–they may need to talk out their feelings about the process, or they may even cry while working. Be there for them, facilitate the process of purging and cleaning as much as you can, and keep any negative words to yourself, since discouragement or judgment in any form can be more hurtful than you ever imagined.
If They Get Daunted, Help Them Restart–Or Find a Stopping Place
During my massive cleanouts, I tend to get daunted very easily; sometimes, I just look at the enormity of the task and want to either cry or vomit. I feel safe in guessing I’m not the only hoarder who reacts this way, either!
If your hoarder friend is getting daunted early on in the process, it’s up to you to be their cheerleader; you can keep dusting and mopping as they rest, visually demonstrating the progress you both are making, or you can stop and give them a pep talk. Keep it all positive, though–don’t shame them for this reaction, but help them conquer it!
However, if the purging process has been going for quite a while (several hours), and the hoarder is getting daunted because of mental and emotional exhaustion, it’s better to find a stopping place rather than to push them to keep working. Finish the section you’re working on together, and let that be enough–remember, this hoard wasn’t built up in a day, so it won’t be taken down in 24 hours!
When you’re helping a hoarder in your life, it will be demanding on you, but it’ll be even more demanding to them. Being a positive, encouraging, helpful hoarder’s assistant will be key to them finishing the job. Trust me, we recovering hoarders REALLY appreciate awesome people who are willing to help!