Looking at photos of my mom’s house creates a conflict of emotions. On one hand, I think, “Oh…that’s where that yearbook went,” and then on the other, I gasp, “Did we really live like that?”

The answer is yes. Yes, we did. Though my mother’s home got worse after I moved out in 1995 and even worse than that when I stopped visiting her home in 1997, it wasn’t beyond recognition when I walked through the front door after her death in 2015.

This is life when you love a hoarder.

Hoarding comes up frequently over in our Clutter Free Academy Facebook group. We attract people who love hoarders and want to help them, and we attract people who identify as hoarders. As the kindest corner of the internet, we love every single one of them in our shame-free zone. Our recent two-part podcast, “Is It Hoarding or is it Clutter?” (listen to Part 1 and Part 2) debunks common myths around hoarding.

Hoarding isn’t about organization or cleaning, and it’s not about laziness. It’s a mental health disorder that comes in varying degrees. The thought or act of getting rid of saved items causes great distress to people with hoarding disorder. And the thought and act of living with people who have this persistent inability to discard possessions, regardless of value, causes great distress to the rest of us.

Loving a hoarder is not an easy life, but neither is being a hoarder.

Most of us are not equipped to help the hoarders we love. That requires the intervention of professionals. The International OCD Foundation estimates 1 in 50 Americans falls somewhere on the hoarding scale but only 15% will ever seek professional help. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, but it does mean we have to be strategic in helping the hoarders we love. Here are my personal tips:

We can educate ourselves

The International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center offers a helpful and effective Clutter Image Scale that helps to identify hoarding vs. clutter. When I discovered Kathi’s book, Clutter Free, most of my house fell in the 2-3 range on this scale. One room was a 4. My mom’s home, on the other hand, was an 8 all the way.

We can set boundaries

Due to the obsessive-compulsive nature of hoarding disorder, removing things from a hoarder’s home without their consent or cleaning up after them causes more harm than good. The hoarder can become agitated, angry and might distance themselves. However, you can set limits. My mom wouldn’t allow me or anyone to visit but she often brought her stuff into my home and would try to leave it. We had to make a rule that whatever she brought had to leave with her, and it was a battle we fought till the end of her life.

We can encourage

Understanding that even a single bag of trash can be overwhelming for a hoarder, we can celebrate any level of progress they make and encourage them further. We can listen without judgement, and we can support their efforts at getting help.

We can get help for ourselves

We can seek the help of a therapist or counselor in working through our own emotions and challenges of loving a hoarder. There are also organizations that exist to support those who love or live with hoarders. Children of Hoarders is a nonprofit with a wealth of online resources that apply to anyone with a hoarder in their life.

We can plan ahead

That means those of us who love hoarders need to prepare for what we will inherit when they die. I knew I’d need help with my mom’s house and had started saving for it. Her death came sooner than expected but the mental preparation helped me handle the burden of settling her affairs while grieving her death. Aftermath Services specializes in hoarding clean-up. It took me two hours of phone calls and internet searches to find them, but they had my mom’s home cleaned and sanitized in six hours. The relief they brought to me in my time of grief is priceless.

Tonya Kubo

Tonya Kubo is the illustrious, fearless leader of Kathi Lipp’s Clutter-Free Academy Facebook group. A specialist in online community design and development, Tonya helps business owners growing free and paid groups that get results. Visit her at TonyaKubo.com.

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