Being the family member of a person with hoarding disorder (HD) can be very stressful. For those family members who live with the person with HD, such as a partner, child, sibling or dependent parent, living among the extreme clutter can cause a lot of physical and emotional difficulties. These same difficulties can also be present for family members who do not live with the person with HD, and all families affected by HD may experience friction and tension as a result. The following information and suggestions come from Fugen Neziroglu, PhD, ABBP, ABPP.
Gail Steketee, PhD, LICSW, talks about how hoarding disorder can affect family members.
Increased Family Conflict
A major area of conflict arises when the hoarding results in a loss of usable living space, especially in shared areas (such as the kitchen, living room, etc.). “Usable living space” refers to rooms being used as they were intended, including being able to use furniture, appliances, countertops, etc. normally and without interference by clutter.
Another area of conflict is the financial strain that can result from excessive shopping in order to get more things, and the possible need to get storage facilities (chests, lockers, garages, sheds, etc.). Both can lead to debt, in addition to the potential tension — purchases are often not discussed, credit cards may be “maxed out,” and money therefore cannot be allocated to purchases that family members may need or want.
A third area of conflict can happen when the individual with HD “claims” parts of the home as their own, taking it over with hoarded items and controlling how the space is used. This extends to exerting control over how the hoarding items are handled, with the individual with HD not letting other family members make decisions about their own home. This can lead to feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, and vulnerability among family members.
And finally, conflict can arise if family members get so frustrated with the hoarding that they attempt to clean or organize the home, especially if they do this without the individual with HD. The person with HD may feel deceived or violated by this action, and it can lead to arguments and loss of trust within the family.
Children of Those with HD
Children of those with HD often cannot avoid living in the extreme clutter — especially if they are still minors — which affects their social lives and development. Children are often too embarrassed by all the stuff to have friends come over, or are not allowed to due to their parent's embarrassment. This may lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness, and resentment. In severe cases, children may not have space to play or study to the extent that the parent with hoarding may be investigated by child protective services.
Children may also feel resentful, depressed, or angry about the lifestyle their parent’s HD causes them to lead (e.g. “sacrifices” they are expected to make in accommodation, etc.). They may come to believe that their parent with HD values their possessions more than their children, which can cause children to feel abandoned, rejected, and/or that they are not loved nor treasured as much as their parents’ things.
Due to the increased family conflict, children might feel torn between the parent with HD and the parent without it. Should the family conflict reach such a point that divorce is considered, children may blame the break up of their family on the person with HD.
Legal issues may arise should a neighbor become aware of the home situation and call child protective services (CPS). If this happens, an investigation may ensue — this may result in the removal of children from the home, unless one of the parents makes other living arrangements. Whether the child continues to live in the extreme clutter or is removed from the home, the end result can be devastating for the family.
Adult children often have a strained relationship with their parent with HD. As adult children move out of the home, they may become estranged from their parent with HD due to disagreements about how hoarding should be handled. Adult children may also blame the parent for the conditions in which they lived as a child. Parents with young children may be concerned about their safety in a grandparent’s home that is heavily cluttered. Therefore, grandparents may become isolated from their grandchildren — not only does this create distance within the family, but it causes the person with HD to become even more isolated.
Adult children of those with HD may experience a phenomenon called “caregiver burden,” commonly experienced in situations where people are required to provide emotional or practical care for another person. Being in the caregiver role may cause increased interpersonal conflict, chronic worry, anxiety, depression, and the inability to cope. Caregivers may also experience a number of negative life events, such as loss of self-esteem, disruption of finances, loss of competence, loss of hope and sense of security, and difficulty planning for the future.
Spouses of Those with HD
Spouses of those with HD typically put up with the hoarding behavior of their partner for years before deciding that they can tolerate it no longer. Frustration and hostility build over time when their partner is unable to make a dent in the clutter despite repeated requests. The spouse may consider separation or divorce when they become too frustrated or the family conflict gets too intense.
If there are children in the family, a custody battle may then ensue. Often, pictures of the home are taken to court to convince the court that the home environment is not suitable for bringing up a child. The parent with HD feels ashamed, guilty, and/or resentful, interfering with their ability to bring up the child jointly.
In rare cases, both members of the couple have hoarding tendencies and together fill up their home with items each considers indispensable. In such cases, intervention will be unlikely to be helpful unless both partners agree to work on the problem at the same time.
Health and Safety at Home
Beyond the emotional effects, HD can also impact the safety and health of families – the effects if hoarding reach all members of the household, not just the person with HD. As clutter grows excessive, it is very difficult to remove common irritants (such as accumulated dust, pet hair, pollen, grime, etc.) from the home as family members are unable to vacuum or dust, sometimes for months or longer. Additionally, spilled liquids cannot be cleaned, leading to mildew, fungus, and/or unwanted pests. The inability to clean can leave individuals with HD and their families with headaches, breathing problems (asthma, etc.), and allergies due to the poor living conditions in the home. The inability to clean can also lead to bathrooms in the home becoming non-functional, or so cluttered that it is impossible to reach the toilet, sink, and/or shower. Thus, hygiene for the entire family may become an issue.
It is common to have so much clutter in a hoarded home that paths must be carved through the clutter in order to get around the home. These paths may become blocked by fallen or new clutter, which can result in people tripping, slipping, and falling. Not only does this impact those who are physically able, but excess clutter may pose an even greater risk to anyone living in the home who lacks mobility. In extreme cases, the home may become so cluttered and hard to navigate that family members can only use one or two rooms.
Clutter may also interfere with safety procedures. In addition to being a fire hazard, clutter can also prevent family members from leaving the home in case of an emergency and/or can prevent emergency response personnel from entering the home. Fire is especially a risk when paper items are piled high and located near the stove, heaters, or other flammable materials. If a fire does break out, members of the household may not be able to reach fire extinguishers to put it out, and toxic fumes from flammable materials may create further health problems for all those who are exposed. Burning materials may fall during a fire, creating a trapping hazard and interfering with firefighters’ ability to rescue people from the home.
In homes where the HD is severe, floors may not be able to hold the weight of excessive clutter. The combined weight of all the clutter plus the potential water damage from broken or clogged pipes and appliances put a tremendous amount of pressure on floorboards and can cause them to decay. There are even more dangers in homes that have pets. Cats may not be able to use their litter boxes and dogs may be allowed to urinate and defecate inside the home because owners are unable to get through clutter to take them outside. This, combined with the possible mildew and fungus from spilled liquids can attract pests (e.g. rats, cockroaches) that infest the home and render it uninhabitable according to public health standards.
Coping Tips for Family Members
As a family member of someone with HD, it is important to remember to take care of yourself in the face of the stressful environment that hoarding can create. Some suggestions for family members include:
- Seek support to help you manage your own feelings and learn coping strategies. Support may come from seeking out therapists, social workers, counselors, and/or peer support groups.
- Express the impact your loved one’s HD has or has had on your life.
- Seek out other ways of relating to or bonding with your family member.
- Be assertive, neither passive nor aggressive in expressing your feelings.
- Be aware that it is a disorder, but you do not need to suffer as a consequence.
- Know that hoarding behavior is hard to change.
- Do not force Change.
- Acknowledge how hoarding has impacted your life and seek therapy to deal with its impact on you.
- Validate your own feelings.
Talking to your Loved One about HD
Despite all these negative impacts of living in clutter, the person with HD may not recognize the severity of the problem and is therefore very reluctant to seek treatment. However, there are effective treatments and hope. Click here to learn how you can help your family member access the right treatment.