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Quick, Tough Decisions: How I Cleaned Out a Hoarder’s House

Hoarding and dementia make a difficult combination — learn how I simplified the decision-making process

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

This is a story about dealing with a hoarder who has dementia. It’s a personal story, and if you’ve stumbled across this post looking for help with a similar situation, I hope it can help you.

After more than three years of talking to an elderly relative about assisted living (AL), “Harriett” (not her real name) agreed to “try it.” Then — long story made short — I told her about an opening at an Assisted Living (AL) facility on Monday afternoon and she walked in there on Tuesday morning. I, as well as friends and healthcare professionals, were fearful that if we’d told her sooner, she would have changed her mind or forgotten.

As her nearest relative, I felt the need to immediately identify some clothing and creature comforts for her new apartment. I didn’t know how to clean out a hoarder’s house. I just focused on one goal: To set aside shoes and clothing, toiletries, housewares, decorative items and plants, and miscellaneous other items that she might want or need now or later.

But it was tough to identify those items. Clothes were strewn all over her bathroom and completely covered her unmade bed. Shoes lined the hallways. There were other signs of hoarding, including those listed by Cornell University. Their study says that “…if a person with advanced dementia loses the ability to organize or make rational judgments, then hoarding can spiral out of control.” That describes her and what I found in her house.

I had heard and read about hoarding, and even seen examples in movies, but it had never occurred to me that such clutter interferes with helping people to get what they really need. I wasn’t going to be able to get Harriett what she needed without throwing away a lot of stuff to get her house organized.

If you need to clean out a hoarder’s house, be sure you have the legal authority to remove items from the home. Then, develop a clear rationale to support timely decisions to find (and keep) those items which benefit your elderly relative or friend. And if you’re feeling creepy about throwing away someone else’s belongings, just remember that the hoarder is unable to make the decision of what to keep and what to get rid of. Remind yourself that your job is to help the person be as carefree and comfortable as possible as soon as possible.

I needed to make some quick decisions:

  1. What should go? What needed to be trashed, donated, or consigned?
  2. What should be kept? That is, should it be kept and brought to my relative right away or saved for later?

Thankfully, I had four hard-working adults who helped me for multiple days over a week or more. That meant I could delegate some of the tasks. Everyone was respectful, careful, and insightful. But someone was always asking, “What should we do with this?” Finally, I developed five categories for items:


  1. Keep and bring to the AL now.
  2. Keep but bring to AL later. (Some items needed be sorted into seasonal clothing, laundered, repaired, and or just saved until needed later.)


  1. Consign to a local shop.
  2. Donate to a charitable cause.
  3. Trash.

In a separate post, I’ll describe how I determined if items should be consigned, donated, or trashed.

In this post, I’ll describe the five questions I asked myself each time I made the decision of whether or not to keep the item as we proceeded to clean out a hoarder’s house.

Infographic by author

Is it safe?

The central question was, what items would pose a safety threat now or later? I realized it came down to five indicators of items that should not be kept.

  • Obstacles in the environment. I found about 30 throw rugs all around the house. I tripped over one myself! Throw rugs increase the risk for falls. Even if she returns to her home, these are a hazard. My inclination was to get rid of all of them! But this was a little tricky. Most were cheap rugs that looked like they had been purchased at Walmart. But some looked like they may have been expensive. So, we rolled those up and put them in a box to deal with later.
  • Expired or unlabeled pills. These were all over the house. Luckily, two of my friends who were helping knew the location of a nearby approved disposal place. Otherwise, I would have looked for a safe drug disposal facility in the neighborhood.
  • Things that don’t fit. At last count, we found 115 pairs of shoes, not counting the ones with no mates. (And we expect to find more as we continue to declutter the house.) She had visited the podiatrist regularly for a painful hammer toe. Every month, the podiatrist told her that she needed bigger shoes, but of course, as people with dementia do, she forgot the conversation, and continued to wear the too-small shoes.
  • Clothes that pose a threat for falls: She had several long nightgowns which now hang below her ankles. (She has lost height since buying them.)
  • Outdated food: Here, I’m talking about food that was not even recognizable. And we found some pantry foods with an expiration date more than ten years ago! Gotta go, for sure.
  • Other: Anything that needed substantial repairs or alterations to be safe.

Is it superfluous?

When cleaning out a hoarder’s house, I lost time pawing through seemingly endless superfluous items. Often, the same or similar items were in multiple locations. My guiding light was remembering my goal to deliver items to her that she would immediately use and enjoy.

  • Clothing: We have now found an estimated 300+ pairs of socks/stockings in multiple drawers. She (and probably I!) will outlive the need for so many socks. They were just ordinary socks — no designer socks — many with the tag still attached.
  • Consumable goods: I’d guess we found more than 1,000 paper napkins, including those that looked like they had been snatched from restaurants. We found upwards of 500 large plastic trash bags. Dozens of containers of dental floss, boxes of soap, and more.
  • Redundant: I found 15 or more pairs of multi-purpose scissors spread out in several rooms. There were more than 20 pairs of sunglasses. None of them were special, and some of them still had the Big Lots tag attached. Who needs that many? I also found 18 watches, again, nothing special, and some of them didn’t work. Even if they could be fixed, that’s too many watches for one woman even if she lives to be 100.
  • Has better: There were many items for which she had a better equivalent. My conservative estimate is that she had more than 75 cotton turtle-neck long-sleeved tops. (It’s still cold in her city, so I haven’t yet rifled through the short-sleeve tops.) I kept the best ones for her to use now or later; others need to go. I reminded myself that clothing and other items at AL facilities can get lost, so I ordered iron-on labels.
  • Provided by facility. I found dozens of rolls of toilet paper, but since this particular AL facility provides it, these were not needed.

Can it be used by the owner?

I found many items that were perfectly usable, but she would not have been able to use them at this point in her life. These included:

  • Hobbies and crafts: I saved some gardening tools, but I doubt she will ever get the opportunity to use them. And even though I’m an avid knitter, neither she nor I will ever live long enough to use the hundreds of skeins of yarn or the dozens of wicker baskets she had stored. At least some of these deserve a new owner.
  • Was intended for someone else: I found everything from her late husband’s shirts to anti-embolism stockings still in the package. These needed to go.

Is it appropriate for the facility?

As you’re cleaning out a hoarder’s house, one of the most straight-forward tasks is recognizing items that just can’t be taken to assisted living or other group facilities. These tend to fall into a few different subcategories:

  • Safety: Some items are prohibited in facilities that have strict state mandates. Unfortunately, the AL facility did not provide a list. But as a registered nurse who has worked in several hospitals, I knew that items such as electric blankets, space heaters, candles and more would not be allowed. This list is helpful, but regulations vary from state to state, and the facility sometimes has rules that are more stringent than the state mandates.
  • Impractical: It’s just not practical to bring some items to an AL situation where the staff throws all clothing into a washing machine. Items that are silk, cashmere, or wool need to be laundered by hand, and often by using a special soap like Eucalan. So those items could be kept, but would not be appropriate for an AL situation.
  • Sentimental items: I brought several photos and other sentimental items to the AL facility, especially those that already had duplicates or could be duplicated. I had duplicates of some family photos. Similarly, some photos could easily be duplicated, for example, the trip she took with me and my husband to San Diego a decade or so ago. But I didn’t know if photos from the early part of the 20th century could be replaced, so I left them at her house.
  • Security: Fine jewelry poses a security risk. Luckily, she had several pieces of nice costume jewelry that I could take to the AL facility, but fine jewelry needs to go into a safety deposit box.

Is it nonfunctional, outdated, mismatched, or unmatched with a “primary?”

As I was cleaning out a hoarder’s house, I found a lot of items just didn’t serve any purpose. Items on the “get rid of” list included:

  • Nonfunctional: Anything that just didn’t work or needed serious repairs. There was an ancient vacuum cleaner that didn’t work, and we practically fell over a picnic bench that was broken — that one was also a safety threat!
  • Outdated: Non-digital food scale, dried up markers or pens, and more.
  • Missing primary: We found a dozen or so bags for the non-working vacuum cleaner.
  • Non-matching items. I found probably 25 saucers which did not match each other and did not have a matching cup. They looked like junk to me, but I set them aside to evaluate later. They might be valuable, but I highly doubt it. Similarly, lone items, such as one pillowcase that had no matching sheets, weren’t worth keeping.

Cleaning out a hoarder’s house is an act of love

This task created many uneasy feelings for me. I felt completely unprepared for what I saw, and I had no structure for how to deal with it. With no logic for where items were located, I resented losing hours of my time pawing through dozens of items in multiple rooms to find just one clean, functional, seasonally appropriate item that didn’t pose a safety risk. I was frustrated picking the “one” thing that would suffice, and later finding dozens of similar but much better things. Worse still, I felt like a snoop going through someone else’s belongings, and then relocating, tossing, or at least withholding many possessions. Who was I to judge the fate of items that felt valuable to someone else? Yet, that person’s inability to make those judgments is exactly why the hoarding happened. 
By definition, a hoarder cannot decide what to keep or what to get rid of, so they end up not enjoying items they can’t find, or not using items for their intended purpose, including not sleeping in the bed. By taking control of what feels like an endless and thankless task, I knew that I — and maybe you — can make it possible for a debilitated person to access, use and enjoy their possessions.

In the end, cleaning out a hoarder’s house is an act of love. You’re helping them to reclaim their life. Hold on to that as you go through the seemingly endless sorting — you are doing good.

Do you have any tips to offer for these situations?

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

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