Our mum’s hoarding and debt problems are out of control

We are a group of adult siblings, worried about our mum. During our childhood, and since, our mum has had a problem with hoarding and debt. This got worse after our abusive father left and after they divorced.

Mum is now retired and has a comfortable income, though she is not wealthy. In the last 25 years she has received two sizeable lump sums which have melted away with nothing to show for them.

Things came to a head a few years ago when the debt and hoarding became out of control. Various agencies were involved and Mum was eventually rehoused by the council. We all helped her to sort things out for the move and settle her debts, and it really felt like a “fresh start” (her words).

However, there are a lot of signs that mum is hoarding again (objects, post and foodstuffs) and she recently asked one of us for money to pay a credit card debt. We have all tried different ways of dealing with the situation, but nothing seems to work. As siblings we get on fairly well and want to find a long-term solution.

Hoarding is a complex psychological problem – it’s not just a case of someone having too much stuff. And it isn’t easy to fix, as you have found. Unless you work on the causes, simply clearing out someone’s home doesn’t work, as they will just start hoarding again.

It’s great that you and your siblings want to help – and a family intervention can be beneficial – but your mother is capable of making her own decisions about what she does and how she spends her money. So while I understand how painful this is, unless she wants to address the problem there isn’t much you can do at the moment.

However, it’s important for you and your siblings to agree on a strategy to help your mother when she asks for help, and to stick to it as one – a united front. There are also things you can do to move towards understanding why it is happening. I spoke to Dr Stephen Kellett, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, who specialises in hoarding behaviour. He thought your mother may also have a problem with compulsive buying, which seems likely given her consistent debts, or compulsive acquisition – or both. Compulsive buying is the exchange of money for goods to an excessive degree; compulsive acquisition is where people hoard free stuff: things they find in skips, complimentary items from hotels etc.

Kellett also said “hoarding can be a barrier to effective social interaction”. Someone may hoard because they are more comfortable with objects than people; or because the hoarding creates shame and embarrassment, contact with people is avoided for fear of judgment, and a vicious circle ensues.

Kellett said one important aspect of treatment might be a home visit from an agency, such as the fire service, to check on safety issues: does your mother need one of these?

You don’t say which agencies were involved before and how things were left. If it were just a case of clearing out your mum’s previous house and moving her, this would not have got to the root of the problem. As Kellett explained, “Possessions, for hoarders, can hold vivid feelings, thoughts and memories.” This means that moving or removing their stuff without permission can be extremely distressing, and they can end up hoarding more.

The original reasons for hoarding can be due to attachment problems or childhood trauma. Kellett wanted you to try to establish what your mum might be trying to hold on to emotionally, as well as physically. Instead of concentrating on what is already in the house and trying to get rid of it, “start a [general] conversation with her about the flow of objects into her home and how she goes about acquiring those”. Pick the sibling she gets on best with for this task. It may give you valuable insight into what is going on emotionally, as well as helping to stem the flow.

I think you will all need to establish boundaries to preserve your own mental health. Decide what you can help with, leave what you can’t. I know it’s not easy. It is a kind of torture watching loved ones refuse the help they need.

Your GP should be able to recommend services. I’d try looking at adult social services, debt management and bereavement counselling.;;;

Send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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