Question: My dad (77) has been hoarding junk for 30 years. He lives alone and refuses treatment. I have just been to his apartment the 1st time in 10 years (without his knowing). It is so filled with junk; there is no place to walk. He must crawl over 4 feet of piles to get around. It is an extreme fire hazard (he has electrical problems and has seen sparks), putting other families in the building. I am planning to clear the apartment while he is in hospital for surgery in 3 weeks. What are the possible consequences? How might he react and feel? Is there any way to prepare him?
Answer 1: Compulsive hoarders often minimize the problem and resist seeking help. The situation you describe is a very difficult one for family members. You do not want to violate your father’s privacy and independence, but your concern about his welfare is reasonable. If you decide to clean his apartment without his consent, be prepared for him to be very upset. Even without OCD, most people do not want others “messing” with their stuff if they haven’t asked them to do so. The fact that you are waiting until he is away suggests you already suspect he will not respond positively. If he has OCD (which sounds likely), he will probably be especially distressed and anxious. Occasionally, a compulsive hoarder will feel relief afterwards, that the deed has been done and grateful to have been spared the responsibility for deciding which items to keep and what to do with the items to be discarded. Don’t count on this reaction though. More often, the response is anxiety followed by anger.
I am not suggesting you are doing the wrong thing, just be prepared. There is no simple answer to this kind of problem. As an alternative, some families tell the hoarder ahead of time or give the individual a deadline by which things have to be discarded. If you can persuade the OCD sufferer to tackle the problem, there is a better chance for recovery and often less family conflict. You might consider getting consultation from a therapist who specializes in OCD. It is sometime helpful to have someone help guide you through this difficult family process, whether you do this with or without your father’s consent. Good luck!
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Answer 2: Do be careful in undertaking this for him. I would want to let him know your plans and to discuss them so that he has some say in this process. Most hoarders whose relatives do this willy-nilly simply begin hoarding again immediately, usually back to the same level within a year or two. On top of this, they are very angry with the relative who empties the home. So I would proceed with caution and extensive discussion with him. He can learn to improve on acquisition and discarding problems if he gets personal practice working on this with help.
Answer 3: For reasons of health or safety you may have to clear out your fathers place and you can expect he will be very upset by your doing so. He may refuse to let you ever go to his home again or otherwise take a very strong stand. Also it is important to understand that the problem is likely to reoccur unless he is willing to try treatment. Even then treatment of hoarding is difficult.
Answer 4: He could become very angry and/or depressed, or he might surprise you by not reacting as much as you might expect. To protect your relationship with him and to avoid lying to him, you might arrange for the landlord or the fire marshall to be the bad guy by demanding that you clean it out. After he’s recovered from the surgery, tell him in a matter-of-fact way what you were required to do.
Answer 5: It is very difficult to predict his response. In my experience some react positively to the cleaning since the hoarding is often compulsive and anxiety producing as well. Some react with anger and rage. I suggest you seek a consultation with an expert on OCD in your area. Perhaps in a cleaned home your dad can be convinced to see someone to keep it clean. Good luck!