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Is It Really Hoarding...Or Just Clutter?

Often when I meet new clients or just tell people what I do, I hear comments like, "Oh, you would think I am such a hoarder!" or "My spouse/partner/parent/etc. is a hoarder." I typically take these statements with a grain of salt. Your home may not look exactly the way you want it to, and your partner or another family member may be more attached to physical items than you are, but let's discuss what are actually signs of hoarding tendencies, what are not, and what can be done about both.

What Are Hoarding Tendencies?

Speaking as a professional organizer, I will use the term "hoarding tendencies" because I am not a medical or mental health professional. I will never label someone a "hoarder" or try to diagnose someone as having Hoarding Disorder, regardless of how extreme the case may be or the environment may appear. That is outside my professional scope and abilities. I can, however, identify hoarding tendencies, signs and signals of a disorder or disfunction.

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) has created an assessment measurement tool called the ICD Clutter-Hoarding Scale® which explains typical (though not universal, definitive or all-encompassing) characteristics of hoarding tendencies. This is a tool that professionals can use to evaluate the health and safety of a situation where they detect possible hoarding behavior, noting specific signals to look out for in five specific categories.

The ICD's Clutter-Hoarding Scale Categories

  • Health and Safety

  • Animals and Pests

  • Household Functions

  • Structure and Zoning

  • Necessity of PPE

The Obvious and Not So Obvious

While not often, I have encountered signs of hoarding tendencies while evaluating a project. Some of the obvious signs are the obstruction of paths of travel, blocked entrances/exits, intended versus actual functionality of a space, evidence of pests and mold, and unpleasant odors. Sometimes, though, the tendencies are very well hidden and not as easy to recognize until we start to work with a client.

Hoarding tendencies do not always manifest in the ways we've seen on shows like Hoarders. For example, I once worked with a client who was downsizing significantly in preparation for retirement. On the exterior, this home seemed clean and well-kept. As we emptied, edited and packed this person's belongings, it became more and more evident by the number of possessions, the duplication of items, the items we found stored out of sight, and the client's reluctance to part with any of it, that there was an addiction to shopping, an unhealthy attachment to the items and possible hoarding tendencies.

Extreme Clutter Is Not Always a Sign

When a home is cluttered, even extremely cluttered, but the home is clean, the residents live there safely, and items are willingly parted with when appropriate or necessary, hoarding tendencies are most likely not the issue. Typically stress, overwhelm, absence of organizing skills, emotional attachment or other roadblocks could be the clutter culprit.

What Happens if Hoarding Tendencies Are Identified During a Project?

Even if signs of hoarding tendencies are revealed, it doesn't necessarily mean that we can't complete a project. If we can safely and appropriately finish it, that is always the goal. If, however, the environment is unsafe, we may stop work and recommend a cleaning, remediation or pest control professional be brought in before we continue to work. In rare cases, it may be necessary to refer the client to a mental health professional or another organizing professional who specializes in working with individuals with hoarding tendencies.

No Judgement

Regardless of the conditions, there is always hope, and many ways to help someone make progress toward a better living space. Mostly importantly, there is no shame in how you keep your home. We will never judge. We only offer solutions to help you create the environment you want to live in. The way we attain that goal is different in every case, but we are dedicated to helping you turn your chaos into calm so you can focus on the things that really matter to you.

Have you called yourself a "hoarder"? Contact us to talk about whether you really have hoarding tendencies and if an organizer from our team could help!

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