Hoarding Reality Television Shows: A Professional Organizer’s Inside Look

Although the television shows “Hoarders” on A & E and “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC provide viewers with invaluable insight into compulsive hoarding, they also offer an inside look as to how professional organizers along with mental health professionals work with hoarders to help them gain control of their homes and belongings. I am one of the few professional organizers who have had the privilege to work for both shows.

Providing After Care for the “Hoarders” Television Series

This summer I was contacted by the “Hoarders” series to provide after care for a family that lives not too far from my home. Needless to say, I was very excited and humbled to be asked to provide such an important service. In fact, many would say, this is where the real work begins. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, a team of professionals – therapists, related-professionals, and professional organizers — work with the hoarder for two to three days to declutter the home and guide them in making decisions regarding their possessions. Since the first ground rule when working with a hoarder is that you do not get rid of anything without their permission, you can imagine that this process takes A LOT longer than 3 days. What viewers don’t see is that once the camera crew packs up and the team flies home, the show pays for a local therapist and organizer to continue working with the family for the next 6 months. And that’s where I came in.

I began working with the family (a married couple in their mid 60s with grown children who live elsewhere) at the end of the summer so our six months came to an end recently. When I first arrived, their home was a Level 5 (the most severe case) on the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s clutter hoarding scale. Every room in this 4-bedroom home was filled with clothing, books, papers, home goods, etc. A life time of memories and purchases stacked floor to ceiling. We spent our first few sessions defining goals, meeting with the assigned therapist and working collaboratively with their children to set realistic parameters. Since the wife had some serious medical issues, it was crucial that we made the house safe, clean and functional as quickly as possible. This truly was a team effort!

Now, after many months of hard work we (with consistent help from their children) have cleared the kitchen, stairwells and hallways, bedroom and living room. But more important than the decluttering, this family, surrounded by tons of love and support, has made major changes in the way they relate to their possessions. Although they still have a long way to go, I believe their strong commitment to and trust in the process will make them truly successful. Not to mention their goal of hosting Christmas dinner next year! I feel blessed to have worked “behind the scenes” to coach, teach, motivate, organize, focus and support them in this life changing endeavor.

Organizing a Hoarder’s Home for the “Hoarding: Buried Alive” Reality Show

When I was first approached by the “Hoarding: Buried Alive” show to work with a gentleman to help clear his kitchen and dining room and have our work documented for national television, I was very conflicted. You see, the relationship between the client and his professional organizer is a very personal one. I spend hours getting to know my clients’ background, history, habits, etc. before diving into any significant work. We build trust as we move slowly through the process. Would I be able to establish a sense of intimacy and open communication with a client I had just met all under the camera’s glaring lights?

My assignment was to help a single gentleman from Connecticut gain understanding and control of his hoarding tendencies so that he can ultimately sell his home to move closer to his only daughter in Texas. The show’s subject was an avid collector of memorabilia. Piled high with record albums, vintage clothing, pottery, and antiques, his home only had a 6 foot usable living space where he slept.

Once the producers put my fears to rest — Could I speak to him prior to the taping? (Yes) Does the show decide what area of the home we focus on? (No) – I signed on. The “Hoarding: Buried Alive” show uses a different format than” Hoarders”. They contact local professional organizers and therapists (usually the client’s) to provide a one day “on camera” organizing session followed by 4 subsequent “off camera” follow up appointments. Once those are completed, the crew comes back to film the subject to see how he has progressed during that time. The show also focuses on only ONE room of the home. This process is many ways closely resembles the actual process used by professional organizers “in real life.”

I spoke to my new client at great length prior to that initial taping. It was a learning experience for both of us. And I told him that. I had to gain his trust, learn as much as I could about his hoarding tendencies, manage his expectations about the process and reassure him that I would never push him to go further or faster than he was willing or able. Will the help of a very knowledgeable and caring “crew”, the taping went very well. homeland project free tv Using the same techniques and strategies I use with my other clients, I was able to guide him through some difficult decision making while alleviating any pressure he was feeling. We treaded lightly building momentum as the day progressed. I firmly believe that the key to his success that day was knowing that I was going to return to work with him again. We had laid the foundation.

So here’s the take away. My client worked long and hard clearing his kitchen and dining room during our four follow-up sessions (Hopefully you watched to see how much progress we made!). But whether or not the “before and afters” are dramatic is not the point. With goals clearly defined, he was able to begin making the changes necessary to get his home in order. And although the road ahead might be a long one, he is very pleased with the progress he has made so far. He understands that the work is a true collaboration (fully supported by friends and family) and therefore he is not alone in this process. The show enabled him to take small steps to recover his home and his life. I am honored to have been by his side.

 

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