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Maintaining or adapting your home

Clutter & hoarding

Most of us have possessions in our homes that we don't want to get rid of. These may include clothes, furniture and common household items, photos or objects that bring back happy memories or remind us of loved ones, or things that form part of a hobby or personal collection (CDs, books etc).

Every now and again most of us will get the feeling that we've gathered too much stuff and will have a clearout or spring clean to create some space.

But for some people gathering possessions in their home, and then not wanting to let some of them go, can become a problem. Suddenly they find that they are surrounded by too much stuff, with more coming in all the time, and don't know what to do.

This excessive gathering of possessions or clutter in the home can then have a knock-on effect on other areas of a person's life:

  • it can be difficult to get about the home because there are so many things in the way, and there can even be an increased risk of tripping, falls or other accidents
  • it can be more difficult to find the things you need for day to day life - keys, money, documents etc
  • there can be a hygiene risk as old food and dirt gathers unseen in corners of the property, leading to problems with mould, unpleasant smells, rodent and insect infestation and other hygiene issues. And this can then have a negative effect on neighbours
  • there is an increased risk of fire
  • there can be a negative effect on a person's relationships and social life, as they become embarrassed about inviting people into their home, or as friends and loved-ones simply don't want to be in what they see as an unpleasant or uncomfortable environment

In the worst cases this 'clutter' can become even more problematic. Some people find that their homes can become full from top to bottom with all types of things - furniture, piles of papers, old clothes, things that they have found when out and about, and much more besides. Suddenly a person can find that there is literally no way around their home, and that they are living in one small space surrounded by mountains of possessions. To other people these possessions may seem like 'rubbish', but the person who has gathered them will attach great importance to them, and will not want to let go.

When the problem reaches this level it is known as compulsive hoarding.

Causes of hoarding
Many people with hoarding difficulties may suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which may or may not be directly connected to their clutter problem. Hoarding is also often associated with other forms of anxiety and depression. In such cases the effects of their mental health problems may be affecting their ability to make decisions about how they live, and to deal with the problem as it grows around them.

Some people who hoard things may not necessarily be considered to have mental health problems. They can be capable of leading active and rewarding lives away from their homes. In such cases it could be argued that, if their situation is not having a negative or hazardous effect on people around them (for example neighbours), then they should be allowed to choose how they live their lives.

Possible consequences of hoarding
As well as negative impacts on the lives of people who hoard, and on the lives of people living around them outlined above, people who hoard can find their lives slowly becoming more problematic or chaotic. In the worst cases they could be evicted from their homes, or served a notice from the local council's environmental health department because their homes are considered filthy and verminous in the eyes of the law. In such cases they will be expected to clear and clean their homes within a particular timescale, or to have their homes cleared compulsorily cleared by others (for which they will usually be expected to pay).

No matter what causes someone to hoard they should be encouraged to seek help to resolve the problem before it takes over or ruins their life.

Support with clutter and hoarding
If a person is showing a tendency towards hoarding they should talk to their GP to discuss whether or not they have a mental health problem which is contributing towards the problem.

The thought of de-cluttering or tidying can be very overwhelming if you tend to hoard things, but it's important to try to keep your home as clutter-free as you can.

To make the task less overwhelming and more achievable, try making a schedule of smaller tasks and then work through each task in order. Start by sorting things into piles and sort each pile before moving on to something else. It might help if you tackle a different room each day to make the task more manageable.

Depending on the extent of the problem the local council's Adult Social Care team may be able to offer support to someone to sort  the problem out. A social worker will carry out an assessment of the person's needs with the them; if the person is eligible for support then a social worker will work out a plan of action with the person, and work with the person to bring the problem back under control.

Many local home care agencies will provide support with cleaning; go to the support in your home page for more details.

Support with clutter from Age UK's Helping Hands service
Reliable help and support in the home offering assistance via practical, emotional and social support, including help with cleaning, ironing, changing bed linen, laundry, sorting through cupboards, spring cleans and help with packing when moving house.

Other information and advice
You can find out more about hoarding from NHS Choices.

Hoarding can greatly increase the risk of fire in your home. The London Fire Brigade has a leaflet with tips for hoarders on how to reduce the risk of fire.

Help for Hoarders has information and resources about hoarding

Hoarding UK is an organisation committed to increasing choice and control for people who compulsively hoard while ensuring the professionals are empowered to provide appropriate and effective interventions.

The Counselling Directory allows you to search for specialist counsellors and therapists who can support you with a hoarding problem, and offers specific advice on hoarding.

Hoarding Disorders UK aims to provide practical hands-on support as well as expert advice to those experiencing varying levels of hoarding, ranging from the chronically disorganised to the extreme hoarder.

Children of Hoarders aims to improve the lives of children from homes with hoarding issues.

Cluttergone is a professional declutter and organise service which helps people with the clutter that is getting in the way of their life.

FlyLady is a cheerful and user-friendly site offering advice and encouragement on sorting out your clutter.

The Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers has information on accredited specialist workers near you who can help you 'declutter' your home.