Published on January 1, 2012.

Talking to hoarders

A new resource offers first responders tips on what works and what doesn’t

"How can a person live like this?" 

This may well be the reaction of a firefighter or a first responder entering the home of an extreme compulsive hoarder. But it’s a thought that should go unsaid, particularly because firefighters can play a key role in dealing with hoarding situations, experts say.

Here are suggestions, adapted from The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Service Professionals (Oxford University Press) on how officials, including first responders such as firefighters, should approach a compulsive hoarder when confronted with a potentially dangerous living situation.

  • Use respectful language. Instead of commenting on "the mess" with frowns or grimaces, speak in neutral tones with neutral expressions. Say, "I’m concerned about your personal safety."
  • Match the language of the person. If the person talks about his "collection" or her "things," use that language. Don’t use words like "junk," "trash," or even "hoarding," as these words carry derogatory meanings.
  • Focus on safety issues. Concentrate on key areas such as stoves, heat sources, blocked exits, nonworking smoke alarms, structural damage, or frayed electrical cords. Try to build support for addressing these particular safety issues instead of insisting on an immediate total cleanup.
  • Explain that you understand why this is upsetting even while you emphasize that some kind of change is necessary.

Top Photograph: Newscom