Hoarding: Collaboration is the Best Approach

Marie has been helping her mother Gladys to sort through her extensive collection of books, academic journals, magazines and newspapers.  The collection is so extensive that it is beginning to overflow from tables and chairs onto the floor, and the stairs and stacks in the hallway.


After finding common ground by agreeing that safety was the primary goal, not just discarding everything, Gladys was agreeable to reorganization.  Marie recognized that it would be an emotional journey for her mother since the publications are so deeply linked to her personal identity. With Marie’s guidance, Gladys agreed upon ways to categorize and sort the various literature, and they’ve been slowly working through the riskiest stacks on the stairs and in the hallway.


On a recent visit to see Gladys, Marie noticed a new pile developing in the hallway again. After so much effort to get that area clutter-free, Marie couldn’t help but exclaiming: “Why do you have this newspaper?!” Instantly Gladys felt accosted and was on defensive mode. She was justifying her newspaper build-up in the hallway, and in retrospect, Marie realized that her mother’s defensiveness was masking other emotions too.  She was probably feeling a little shame that she wasn’t able to keep the hallway clear, and perhaps guilt that she had undone some of their collective work. It is an emotionally laden topic, so it’s not surprising that Gladys had a strong emotional reaction.



The problem with asking “why do you have this?” is that it implies someone should not have the item. It instantly puts the other person in defense mode to defend their need to have or keep the item.  Usually, the conversation devolves into an argument over what should be kept and what should be discarded…an argument Marie and Gladys have had countless times before. Once emotions are running high and territory has been staked—it’s you against them—it will be difficult to find common ground and make progress.


Instead, try to ask “why do you have this here?” Instead of the conversation being about whether or not the item should be kept, the conversation is about whether that is the correct location to store the item.  If Gladys does not feel that she’s at risk of Marie confiscating her newspapers, she may be more agreeable to discuss why the newspapers are in the hallway.


The conversation might evolve more along these lines: “Why are the newspapers here, Mom? Remember our goal to keep the hallway clear. Is there a safer place we could keep these newspapers?” This collaborative approach invites Gladys to join Marie in creative thinking to solve the problem.  It removes the confrontational feel of being on opposing sides.  It helps Marie to frame the conversation around the collective goal of home safety.


Gladys might admit that the newspapers are in the hallway because she hadn’t yet read them, but wanted to set them somewhere she wouldn’t lose them. She wants to keep the newspapers within sight for fear she’ll forget about them once they’re out of sight.  She felt that the hallway was safer than the staircase, so she was honouring the safety goal. 


Marie can start with the common ground that has already been shared: appreciation that the staircase remains clutter-free with no papers of any kind.

Celebrate that success! 

Marie can acknowledge that safety concerns were top of mind for her mother when she chose not to place items on the stairs.  Then Marie can acknowledge her mother’s challenge—having a place to put unread newspapers—and she can more easily start to brainstorm solutions to ensure safety issues are more fully met by keeping the hallway clear as well.  Perhaps Gladys needs a basket or bin to store her papers or perhaps a specific table could be cleared to make room for newspapers.


Next time Marie is tempted to react to a newly developing stack of publications, she can take a step back and pause. She can aim to calm herself first, take a deep breath, and ask “why are these here?” Then, together, Marie and Gladys can aim to keep the conversation focused on how to meet their overall safety goals.

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