Can Professional Organizers Really Help Hoarders?

Today Leslie, a member of the Metrozing team, is here to share her experience working with hoarders.


Recently I had the opportunity to work at the home of a hoarder, when the show “Hoarders” on the A&E network, was being filmed. We worked as a team (of organizers) to help with the sorting and purging process. The hoarder we were working with had several critical deadlines that were quickly approaching. There were legitimate threats that Child Protective Services would take away her son because of the condition of her home. In addition, her landlord requested that she remove a portable storage unit from her property or she would need to vacate the land. There was also a lot of emotional baggage with other family members that created additional conflict in this situation.

Our team was pumped up and all set to work two full days to clear through as much as we could and organize what was left. On the first day, per client direction, we unloaded the shed, portable unit and porch (or additional storage area) and sorted through what was there. We created rows of kitchen items, tools, gardening supplies, etc. and waited for the client to make decisions on what to keep, donate, consign or throw away. As the client went through the items, she gave reasons why she needed to keep countless cans of old paint, discussed the emotional attachments to articles of clothing that neither she nor her son could wear and dreamed out loud about all of her decorating plans with the mismatched curtains, pillows and comforters. Our organizing team very quickly realized that the client was neither willing nor able to part with much. We loaded the sorted items back into their respective locations… one day down and very little progress had been made. Even the looming deadlines were not enough to force the client into action.

I found the situation paralyzing and discouraging. So much help and assistance was on hand to bring order to the client’s physical belongings and try to get her life back on track. It was hard to understand how even the threat of losing her son to foster care could not motivate her to get working. I had to ask myself, can we as organizers really help hoarders? Wouldn’t the hoarder’s resources be better utilized through psychological care and then later with organizing? If the psychological issues are not resolved, the cycle is bound to continue.

Toward the end of the first day and into the second day, I slowly came to terms with the situation. Yes, the background psychological issues of a hoarder should be the primary focus but there are still things we can do as organizers to buy time and help the living situation as the psychological work progresses. In many cases, when a hoarder (or family member) reaches out for help, he or she is in the midst of a real crisis and needs hands-on help, in addition to psychological care, to begin digging out of the situation.

When working with hoarders, it is important for organizers to realize that we may need to compromise our vision of “organized”. In these types of situations, our goals will need to shift and success will be measured by much smaller victories.

Though our client was unable to part with many belongings, we were able sort her living room items and clear a path so that a working oven could be moved into the kitchen. We were successful in making room for our client’s son to have a bed to sleep in and sorted through the items in his bedroom so he could have a place to retreat. We couldn’t convince her to part with one of the two toaster ovens in her kitchen (because they each held a specific purpose) but we did receive permission to throw away all of the expired food and organize what was left. One of our organizers was bogged down for about an hour searching for a receipt that was misplaced in the mounds of paperwork (needed for a return), but in the meantime, the client’s family members received permission to throw away outdated coupons, fliers and other miscellaneous junk mail. These are baby steps, but steps nonetheless. The hope is that with psychological care, the situation will improve overall for the hoarder and, in time, more progress on letting go of the hoarded items will continue.

I am very grateful for the experience as it has helped me come to terms with some of the issues and frustrations professional organizers face when working with hoarders. The experience and support from our organizing team was invaluable and reassured me that I am not alone in feeling helpless at times. Our profession provides an invaluable service to hoarders that can help, in conjunction with psychological care, create a foundation that can help hoarders overcome the challenging situations that they face in their lives.

GT: And I am grateful to have you on my team! Leslie, what three things are on your “to do” list right now?

LB: Get the two oldest set for college departure at the end of August, schedule family dental appointments, family emergency safety kit (I think this one has been on the list for about 4 years now!)

GT: How do you make dinner decisions?

LB: I plan out the meals on Thursday night or Friday morning for the next week and make a trip to the food store on Fridays.

GT: Do you use coupons?

LB: It’s a necessity with 4 kids! I use online and paper grocery coupons, retail store coupons, carry-out and restaurant coupons, groupons, twongo, whatever I can find. I have a drawer in my desk where I keep all coupons and menus and pull out the coupons I need before we walk out the door. Every few months or so I go through and throw away the expired ones.

GT: What’s your biggest schedule complaint?

LB: Not enough time in the day!

GT: What’s your least favorite chore around the house?

LB: Cleaning in general!

GT: What magazines do you subscribe to?

LB: 4 currently for me personally: Everyday with Rachel Ray, Real Simple, Our State, Parents. I keep them until they don’t fit into a basket kept in the family room, which is about every 4 months or so, then they get recycled.

Leslie has been organizing things all of her life. Even as a child, she would organize closets and cans in the pantry (“Yes, my parents were a little bit concerned!”). She grew up outside Washington DC, graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a Hearing and Speech Sciences degree, and has held a variety of positions that have enhanced and strengthened her organizational skills. Those skills are honed every day as she manages a family of six. Leslie too experiences the challenges of maintaining order in her own family life – both from the working and stay-at-home-mom perspectives. She has developed numerous systems for time management, paperwork, and organizing. She enjoys passing these skills and strategies along to her clients.

Here are some more articles that may be of interest to you.