Hoarding: Cleaning and Maintenance

I have a sister who does q-tip cleaning. Now, the first time she mentioned that to me, I immediately thought of the world's tiniest feather duster, ready to take on a dusty q-tip.


(Your laughter here!)

No, she meant she used it to get the tiny places conventional dusting can't. So, just to be clear, there are those who go so far beyond the norm on the opposite side of the subject, neither is healthy.

So, as a segue to my last submission about hoarding too much stuff, I thought I would make this on cleaning and maintenance. Again, this is not aimed at anyone, so if you see someone in this article, that is not the intention. I hope, rather, that this article might help you or them.

During my time in this house that many of you already know about, I came upon some issues that normally you don't see in many homes. The first is a health concern - no, I will say they are all health concerns. This one however, is a hazard to the very thing that keeps us alive, and that is breathing.


When you neglect anything, it degrades. Whether it's the car, the toaster, your body, the toilet - anything that is not cleaned and maintained, or both, suffers. That said, the first thing you have when you don't clean for over 30 years (I am not kidding on this one, folks) is dust.

When you have a wood stove and live in the moist part of any state, you get a combination of soot and mildew to add to that. What that gives you on the surface of everything that hasn't been moved is a sticky, brown, and living film about 1/8 inch thick.

So, you become very comfortable wearing the 10/$1.00 painters masks and goggles, as well as getting the looks the people who live there give you. To them you are "changing the norm" and they are not always "OK" with that. Luckily, I persevered.


The first room I tackled was the kitchen. I am not the kind of person who wants to move 15 things, so I can move 5 more things, so I can make a sandwich. I am not germ phobic by any means, but I do like my food to not include big black ants and last year's grease.


I spent the first 3 days getting rid of food out of the fridge and freezer that was literally from 1999 forward. I wouldn't lie to you. The fridge freezer had so much ice in it that the side walls are broken, and the light no longer worked below due to a power serge and the fact the light bulb receptacle had melted. The fridge was so old, the shelf supports were almost all gone, and since the shelves were not stainless steel, most were rusted - and that was the ones that were still there.

I suggested a newer fridge, but then realized the floor was almost gone under this one, and that a heavier one would be a disaster. Luckily, we had the use of another fridge and freezer out on the porch - and those took me the rest of that first week. I found half eaten strawberry nutty bars that were just stuck back inside and had actually stained the plastic pink. Opened chip dip jars of the same kinds, but farther back with older dates on them. I pulled one Tupperware container out of the back, and the bottom stayed. Having sold Tupperware in the past, I chuckled when I wondered if I could get a replacement! Probably not.

When I say that I encountered freezer burn, it was more like finding a piece of 2x4 that had been almost completely wrapped in a tarp with just the end exposed to the weather. Yeah, that is what the chicken and fish looked like that someone had opened, then decided they didn't want it that night and then threw it back there.

There were piles and piles of food that no one wanted me to throw out. I had to sneak things out and burn them - that is how hard it is to do this kind of stuff when you are dealing with the people still in the home.

So, onward and upward.

Once the kitchen was clean enough to cook in, I had a decision to make. The gentleman I was doing this for had just purchased a $3500.00 metal shed, and paid someone $1050.00 to move it up to the house. So, the dilemma was this. Do I clean everything and then move it out, or do I dispose of what won't stay then clean. It didn't take long to realize that the latter took less work. Why clean something you aren't going to keep, right? So, cleaning almost took a back seat to getting things out - almost.

The second thing I mentioned in the beginning was maintenance. Almost before you realized the damage of the dirt, you found the harm that not caring for something had caused.


No one had unclogged the kitchen sink and it took 20 minutes to drain. Having a septic system, he couldn't use a disposal, so pretty much everything went down the drain. That took undoing the elbow, etc, and digging it out with a screwdriver, which poked a hole in it so I had to convert everything to ABS and PVC anyway.

The big black ants had taken over the kitchen. It took the first week to seal the holes where they were coming in and give them no reason to seek food inside the house. The cupboards had so much grease on them, that even TSP was needed twice. Under the sink, the floor had pretty much given away so nothing could be stored under there. The very old stove had flakes of the inside of the oven falling into anything we baked and only two burners worked.

The bathrooms had issues, too. Their drains were clogged with hair, and it took hydrochloric acid to clean the toilets. Trust me, you don't want to ever have to use this product, so you never want to get the toilets in that shape. It was a Watkins product and was so strong that when some splashed onto the shower walls, it took off the pattern.

The carpeting had not been cleaned in probably 30 years, so you dealt with spilled food, second hand smoke, human and pet dander. In some places, the carpet was the only thing that was between the underbelly of the trailer and the inside. The belly board had been damaged by critters, because the trailer didn't have any skirting. With so much weight on the frame, it sagged from age and that meant the mobile had a "center slope" to it.

Aluminum sash windows, though doubled for good measure, no longer work when you leave them closed for so long that they "meld" to the frames. I had to break them open, take all of them off that I could get to, and wash them outside with a hose. I won't even describe what was in the tracks.

The surfaces I could get to were all covered in the sooty substance I described. In some cases, the best I could do is just sweep them down and hope for the best. At least the cobwebs were no longer hanging down from every corner.

There was a table with a pedestal that had been sitting there for so long I had to cut the carpeting around the base to move it. He lost 18 old time albums due to mildew, and that was after we found them behind 6 feet of other boxes that were 4 feet high in depth. The stereo was a loss, as mice had eaten the innards out of it.


After a pipe broke 5 years ago, they never moved the 17 boxes that were under the breakfast bar, so everything in them was ruined, including family photos. I found a tub of canned food that was so old, that the cans had rusted through and the bottom contained "canned food soup". I just duct taped it closed and put it in the dump run truck.

As I mentioned in my last article, too much stuff just means too much to maintain and clean, which is a vicious cycle. In watching the shows on hoarding, I hear the same thing from all of them: "Where do I begin?"

So, here are my humble thoughts on the subject.

First off, frugal people are very good at living within their means. So, taking that idea, one can think of these things before things get out of hand.

  • How much room do I have that I can control?
  • How much work do I have time and energy for to care for it?
  • What do I want to spend to clean and maintenance?
  • Can I enlist anyone's help or is this problem just mine?
  • Do I want to admit to anyone that I can't do this on my own?

When you have honestly answered all of these question, it might be time to sit down with a pot of tea and pen and paper. If you are overwhelmed, a list is a good way to organize your thoughts, when you are in control of them. Once you look up, it might be too much, but if you can put things down on paper, it's like a contract with yourself.

If there are cleaning tasks you can't do due to a disability, ask for help. A good place to start is your church or an agency that helps those in need. The same goes for that leaky pipe, the light fixture that goes "zzt zzt" every time you change the bulb, or that front step you keep sagging into when you come home. Once a cleaning or maintenance project is done to the point where you can take it from there - it's always better than just saying "I will get to it someday."

Clean up spills before they become yucky, then sticky, and then a science project. If you can't eat food, donate it to the local food bank before its expiration date. Do you really want to look at that hot dog under the fridge a year from now? Are there tubs of ice cream from a birthday party two years ago? Then it's to the disposal it goes! Not only would it not be appetizing, it's not good for you anymore.

I put food in a cheap zip lock and then put it in a nicer one, with a piece of paper in between with the contents and date. This saves a lot of food, and the nicer bags don't get messy. Rotating the food you put in the fridge and having a strict rule about a 1 week expiration date is a good way to stay clean and also not get food poisoning. No amount of savings on food is worth a trip to the ER, or worse. The stats on food poisoning deaths would shock you.

Even if you can't keep a handle on keeping the whole house clean, at least pay close attention to the kitchen and bathroom. Are you sick with sniffles and sores all the time - those two rooms might be the culprits.

If you can't fix that drip under the sink, at least put a bucket under it and check it daily, especially if you are paying for water. Not only will it help keep your cabinet safe, you would be amazed at what losing a gallon of water a day costs. (Oh, and dump that water on your plants or give it to the pets!) Fix that saggy step before you fall through it. Falls in elderly homes account for more deaths than any other reason. And with hospital costs and lack of insurance going through the roof, who needs that kind of expense?

In closing, old adages exist because they are true. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is as true today as it ever was. If your house is clean and well maintained, I applaud you. If you could use some motivation for getting it that way, I hope I have helped. If, however, you are in need of some serious intervention, I implore you to seek the help you need.

In case you didn't read my last article, then I will recount what motivated me to write these articles.

In April of this year, a resident of Las Vegas went missing. The local police, neighbors and her husband searched for 4 months to no avail. Even cadaver dogs couldn't find her. Then, her husband found what he thought were a pair of her shoes only to find she was still in them. She had been buried under almost a 1/2 ton of garbage so foul the dogs didn't even notice her. While I didn't know her, I had just come from that kind of situation and knew that but for me being there to stop the heap, this might have happened to the folks I lived with. This lady lived within 100 feet of neighbors, but they lived 11 miles from town. Chances are, no one would have found him (she was bedridden) until the cops came up for a well-check. So, clutter is one thing, and should be controlled. But, keeping things clean and maintained with keep your healthier and safer as well as your family, friends, and guests.

I will conclude these articles soon with a final bit of thoughts on food.

Your friend,
Sandi/Poor But Proud

By Sandi from Sweet Home, OR

Editor's Note: Here are links to the other Hoarding articles by Sandi/Poor But Proud:

October 7, 20100 found this helpful

An excellent article. It isn't just homes you're good at organizing, this was very well written. It also makes me thankful I'm not a hoarder!

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October 11, 20100 found this helpful

Sorry, I would have had to strike a match. I am not being glib, that was horrifying. If the old couple was living that way and she was bedridden, he was going to kill her trying to care for her. She would have been poisoned or hurt or diseased by all that filth. If they were that far gone, they needed to be removed for their own safety to a facility with cleanliness standards.

And then a match should have been lit.

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October 11, 20100 found this helpful

It's always good to be reminded that sometimes hoarders NEED HELP. People can get so self-righteous - which does no good whatsoever! For me, even someone sitting there to TALK to while I tidy up or clean is invaluable - but there aren't very many people that close to me that I can call on - Thank heaven for my energetic husband! How lucky the couple was to find you who would be willing to do that heavy cleaning for them! Such folks are hard to find.

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October 12, 20100 found this helpful

Both of your articles on hoarding have been great, but I just have to add this: hoarding is much more common than we'd think and it doesn't always boil down to laziness or disorganization. As a few posters on both articles mentioned--people who are living in these conditions do need help.

Unfortunately, a crew of concerned family, friends, caring others coming in and doing a major cleanup isn't always the answer, as more than half of hoarders who are assisted like this go back to their old habits and load up their homes again within a year.

Anyone else been watching the various "Hoarders" shows on a few channels lately? One is "Hoarders," another is "Hoarding: Buried Alive," and Animal Planet also has one dedicated to pet hoarders. The one thing almost all of them have in common is that they need therapeutic intervention along with re-learning organizing skills.

Hoarding is now considered to be an offshoot of OCD--Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. On one end of the spectrum of that disease, you'll see people cleaning with Q-Tips and washing their hands a hundred times a day. This is the other end of it.

People who have had traumas they have not gotten help for and cannot get over--mental or physical abuse, deaths of loved ones, divorces--and so on-- often revert to hoarding as a way to surround themselves with things to replace what they've lost. Along the way they literally build walls of collections, spoiled food, garbage and junk to keep the rest of the world out without realizing what they're doing to themselves.

In a strange way, it is the hoarder's way of maintaining control--in reality, it's totally out of control.

I've gone on too long here--the point is that if any of us know someone who's living like this, the best things we can do for them is to get a mental health professional involved--then roll up our sleeves and help with the dirty work.

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October 16, 20100 found this helpful

It is essential that hoarders do get some kind of intervention and some gentle help with the problem, so Puppermom has very good points, and I appreciate all of them. As for striking a match, yes, I felt that way at times. However, I had no legal authority to remove either of them, and she is already in a home.

He is 87, very stubborn and when he wants to have his way, he has it. The reason I am no longer there is because I got the house to the point where he could live there in "relative" safety, and then he stopped talking to me. And I mean, not one word in 6 weeks. He stopped eating what I cooked, and wouldn't even look at me.

It broke my heart but I finally realized he didn't have it in him to tell me he didn't want me there anymore. So, he let me leave as I had no other choice. He is still knocking around, his son is only 3 hours from him, but has not seen him since May, so when the phone rings, I know it will eventually be that he is gone.

I worked harder on that place than I have ever worked on any house in my life, yet I have no regrets. The last article will be out soon, perhaps this next week. I hope this journey you have all taken with me has helped even one person.


PS: One of the best things about my time there was being in total and unconditional love with Bobbi, the best pit bull I have ever spent 5 months with. She was my stress reliever, my walking partner, my confidant and best friend.

Bobbi was my constant.

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