The Complexities of Hoarding Disorder

More research needed to help distressed family members living with hoarders

By: Issac Palmer, Counselling Intern – Calgary Counselling Centre


Hoarding by definition is a mental illness characterized with the following criteria: (a) the persistent difficulty in parting with possessions despite their actual value due to a perceived need for them, (b) an accumulation of a large number of possessions that interfere with using the home for its intended purpose, (c) distress that affects personal functioning; (d) the hoarding is not attributed to a medical illness or (e) another mental illness.

To date, nearly all research conducted on hoarding disorder focuses on the hoarder and not their family members. This has resulted in a lack of ability for counsellors to provide help to family members affected by hoarding, which is one of the reasons I’ve decided to research the subject as part of my thesis.

I’m currently completing a Master’s of Education in Counselling Psychology at the University of Lethbridge and am practicing at the Calgary Counselling Centre as an intern counsellor. While studying the subject, I spoke with a man who had grew up with a hoarder. He woke up early each morning so he could eat breakfast in a restaurant. This type of accommodation lead to financial strain, but it was easier for him to accommodate the hoarding in this way than to clean the kitchen enough to be able to eat breakfast. He was a perfect example of what’s defined as ‘family accommodation’ – a phenomenon in which family members modify their own lives in the presence of hoarding to cope with it. The accommodation in turn makes hoarding easier to deal with.

However, relatives who live with hoarders and exercise this accommodation face drastic conflicts within their social and family lives, such as experiencing backlash from their hoarding relatives when they request to clean or even touch possessions. Individuals living with hoarders often feel ashamed of the hoarding, and try to hide it. This shame makes it undesirable for them to socialize at home, and as a result they may have an unfulfilling social life. Holidays may cause distress, as the ability to celebrate normally is impaired. Patience is also required by relatives, as the fast treatment of hoarding is usually unsuccessful. Fast treatment often results in the quick refill of the living environment again and in most cases, the second time is even worse. These numerous conflicts cause most family members to try avoiding the problem. They tend to cope with hoarding by ignoring it, not talking about it, modifying their routines to accommodate the hoarding, or being complacent with further acquisition.

Another example of the impacts a hoarding relative can create involves a woman who had been left to pay the mortgage of her relative’s house after her relative was left homeless due to hoarding. After the relative eventually passed away, the woman was responsible for back taxes that were not paid by her relative.  She spent a small fortune having the property cleaned up so she was able to rent it to tenants. These are just two stories, but there are many people dealing with the same issue. Hoarders impact their loved ones in significant ways, and more research about family accommodation in hoarding disorder will create a better understanding of exactly what these relatives go through, and how to help them.

The lack of existing research about family accommodation in hoarding disorder has left mental health professionals feeling an inability to help. Those who live with a hoarding relative need guidance when learning how to cope with the unique challenges. They need to learn how to address the challenges surrounding hoarding in a way that is supportive but also encourages change. If this issue is close to you and you would like to contribute to my research study, please feel free to contact me at: or 587-220-4802.


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