If you have an older family member who lives in a state of excessive clutter, you may be dealing with a hoarder.

According to the International Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation, compulsive hoarding is different from just being lax on the housekeeping. Hoarders tend to collect and keep a lot of useless items, even things that appear of little value to most people. Their junk clutters living spaces to the point where it keeps them from using the rooms as they were intended and makes everyday tasks difficult.

Thanks in part to several reality shows focusing on hoarding, Americans now have a better understanding of the condition. According to Johns Hopkins University, there are approximately 12 million hoarders in the United States.

Terry Shulman, an attorney, addictions therapist and founder of Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, in Southfield, Michigan, says hoarding is a form of addiction and is often a reaction to loss, trauma or a life-changing event.

“Hoarding often runs in families and can frequently accompany depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder and impulse control problems,” says Shulman, author of the book, Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding.”

Personal losses such as the death of a spouse, facing retirement or an empty nest can often fuel an older person’s need to accumulate memories, he notes.

“Their world may be shrinking at the same time a family notices their relative’s belongings are expanding,” Shulman says.

In his practice, Shulman often works with families in person and via Skype who are trying to help older relatives break free from compulsive hoarding.

“Some hoarders recognize it’s a problem, but they have an emotional attachment to their items and are unwilling to get rid of [them],” Shulman says.

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If you are attempting to help a family member who is a hoarder, Shulman recommends the following steps.

Get educated about hoarding. Shulman says many families quickly learn that helping a compulsive hoarder involves more than just offering to throw away unwanted items.

“Until the hoarder acknowledges they have a problem and are motivated to change, they may not accept offers of help,” Shulman says. “Forcing a relative to clean out their home usually leads to the hoarder experiencing extreme distress and resuming the hoarding within a few months.”

Shulman encourages families to become educated about compulsive hoarding. The International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation website offer information about hoarding, community resources and more. And childrenofhoarders.com, a non-profit run by children of hoarders, offers families online support and resources.

Seek professional help. If a family isn’t able to help a hoarder reduce clutter, Shulman says it might be time to consider bringing in professional help.

A mental health professional with expertise in hoarding can help the hoarder adopt healthy behaviors through talk therapy. In addition, the therapist also may prescribe an antidepressant medication, shown to help with some cases of compulsive hoarding.

“If the underlying compulsive need to hoard isn’t addressed, a hoarder can continue to repeat the behavior, and it may even intensify,” Shulman says.

A professional organizer who has worked extensively with hoarders also can be helpful. If cost is an issue, there are hoarder support groups and therapists that offer a sliding scale fee structure.

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Practice harm-reduction methods. Instead of taking a heavy-handed approach to reducing clutter in a hoarder’s home, Shulman recommends that families use a non-judgmental approach with hoarders that includes a mix of sympathy, respect and encouragement.

“By using a technique called harm reduction, families work to make a hoarder’s home safer rather than force them to discard all of their possessions,” Shulman says. “This involves setting small, realistic goals and targeting key risk areas such as stoves, heaters, exits and other danger areas.”

The goal with harm-reduction methods is to return functionality to the home while reducing risks such as falls, clutter that could start a fire, blocked exits, mold and insect and rodent infestations.

Explain how they’re endangering others. The clutter can put family members, neighbors and first responders at risk. In the event of a fire, responding emergency personnel can be in danger due to obstructed exits and falling objects.

“Sometimes having a landlord, therapist or the health department intervene in a hoarding situation can help if the hoarder is resistant,” Shulman says. “Emphasize how donating items that your relative no longer needs and getting rid of clutter can improve their health and safety and free up their house to entertain the grandkids or friends.”

Set a realistic pace. Since a hoarder’s home becomes cluttered over time, don’t expect major changes to happen overnight.

“Establish specific weekly goals, set aside a certain time period to clean and separate belongings into keep and giveaway piles,” Shulman says. “Keep in mind that the situation doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be better.”

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Linda Childers is a mom, pet-owner and California-based health writer.