Helping hoarders declutter

Homes buried in debris get uncovered

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It takes a village to deal with hoarding. About a decade ago, Massachusetts communities from Gloucester to New Bedford began forming task forces to tackle the complex issue of compulsive clutter, especially among the elderly. Local senior agencies weren’t equipped to handle households overflowing with squalor. They needed social workers, EMTs, public health, animal control officers and building inspectors to work together to address the problem. In Marlborough, former police officer Martha Shea often saw hoarding, in her role as a first responder. She observed homes buried in debris, like newspapers piled to the ceiling. Shea also had personal experience with hoarding her sister once stockpiled art supplies, books, and paintings.


Now Shea heads up ClearPath, an aptly named metro west community organization — a hoarder often piles up clothes, boxes, photos, and various supplies until there are only narrow passageways left to navigate through a home. While it seems like the solution might be to “just throw it out,” Shea says, hoarders become upset when their valued possessions are touched or moved without their permission. She believes that her support groups help break the cycle of shame and anxiety. She also acts as a decluttering coach, helping people with the process of sorting and discarding. The Globe spoke with Shea about the potentially deadly practice of hoarding.

“As a police officer, I’d respond to 911 calls and discover squalor, but didn’t have any resources to deal with the disastrous conditions we’d encounter. Or neighbors would complain that a property was unsightly or unsafe — a building or code inspector would [then] enforce health and zoning regulations, but there was no formal system to help the hoarder. Reality TV shows have since brought the malady to the public eye. It’s been established as a medical disorder and is more common than previously recognized. Many of us have a habit of collecting stuff and having an emotional attachment to them, whether it’s an old concert ticket or pairs of shoes. But hoarders take it to the extreme.


“There’s a general mindset that hoarders are lazy, poor and uneducated, but that’s far from the truth. Hoarding could happen to any of us. When I get called in to do an assessment, I try to avoid using the ‘H word,’ as there’s a stigma attached to it. It’s important to be respectful and nonjudgmental. People are afraid we want their houses to be white-glove clean, but that’s not how I live, so why would I expect that of anyone else? For example, books on a bookshelf are OK, but when there are so many books they block the doorway and there’s no where to sit or sleep, then it’s affecting quality of life.

“My first step is to build trust. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is a truism, so I work with clients to decide what to keep and what to throw away. Cleaning up the whole house is overwhelming, but tackling just a corner of the table is manageable. The other day, a man had dozens and dozens of cell phone holders, including broken ones. I encouraged him to think about creating more space, and applauded any progress he made. Other people hoard appliances, mail, spoons, empty boxes — almost anything. Support groups — I call them clutter buddies — provide the emotional support needed to do the hard work of cleaning up.

“It’s so rewarding to see progress — windows can now be opened, stairs are cleared of junk, the bathroom is usable, odor is gone. When I see someone able to enjoy their life again, it’s so rewarding. My sister was never able to get the help she needed before she passed away, so the work I do today is a tribute to her. But in my own life, I could be overreacting to the hoarding genes that I might have. My mother is a curio collector and so I’m the total opposite — don’t ever try to bring a knickknack into my house. My friends joke that my countertops are so pristine it doesn’t look like anyone lives there.”

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