Sue Ryder from Dublin runs a specialist cleaning company that helps people with hoarding and cluttering issues
“I started my cleaning business in 1997. The idea of doing specialist cleaning didn’t cross my mind at first but then, one day, I went to a lady’s house and she said, ‘Aren’t you going to clean out my wardrobes?’
I told her that we didn’t do that but when I went home and thought about it, I realised that there must be a niche for people who want that sort of thing done. I’ve always been good at organising and making space and it just snowballed from there.
A lot of my work involves helping people with hoarding and cluttering issues, and there’s always a similar thread running through their story. Sometimes they have had a great loss of some description and they’re holding on to stuff. Sometimes they can’t stop buying stuff.
I remember one client who’d go out and buy things — books and CDs — and the bags would just be dropped on the floor. He wouldn’t even take the stuff out of the bags. He had a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes with the tags still on them and he went around in the same old clothes.
A lot of the people we work with have mental health issues — depression is a terrible thing. I was recently contacted by a woman who is being treated for depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia and extreme fatigue. She wasn’t able to keep up with the cleaning and she was really struggling with the smell in her apartment and the flies.
People like that just feel hopeless and helpless and I’d say it diminishes their self-esteem as well.
We’re not judgemental because that could be any one of us. We don’t know what way life is going to go for us. And this isn’t something that someone does on purpose. I’m sure nobody wants to live in those conditions.
I’ve seen so many people who are distraught because their place is like that. They’re sitting with their head in their hands when you arrive, and they’re very distressed by their situation. On the other hand, people who are very depressed really don’t care what you think.
Sometimes one member of the family is a hoarder and their room would be full of stuff. I remember tidying one young man’s room. The mother rang me six months later and said, ‘It’s worse now, and it’s spilling out into the other rooms’.
You have to have plan and a system when you’re cleaning a house like that. We always start in the attic and clear out as much stuff as we can and, nine times out of 10, we have to get a skip. I start in the attic because, as we’re working our way down through the other rooms, there’s often stuff that needs to go up there.
Sometimes a job can go on for two or three days. The guys come in with shovels and big containers first and then we go from there. Hoarders tend to collect a lot of newspapers and books. There are other people whose beds haven’t been changed in months.
Usually a family member will get in touch on their behalf but then the homeowner will fight back. ‘Leave that there,’ they’ll say.
The thing is, you’ve got to have the people on board or else you’re flogging a dead horse. I remember one woman who was nitpicking at every single detail. We filled up a good few bags and left them outside the house. The next day we came back to find that she had taken three bags of stuff back into the house and had put it all back where it was.
I find that the new generation don’t know how to clean. We go into some houses and we’re told not to go near a certain bedroom. Sometimes we’d go in anyway and there’d be delf and cutlery that had been left there for months, and clothes everywhere. And these would be people in their twenties!
I think the parents do too much for them; they spoil them.
Years ago we’d all have to do our chores. I couldn’t go out with my mates until I’d done what I had to do. We didn’t have much, but anything we had we cleaned and looked after.
The unfortunate thing is that when these young people grow up and get married and have children, they’re lost because they didn’t have to do chores when they were young. There are some people who don’t even know how to turn on a washing machine — these things are alien to them. I think a lot of that stuff should be in schools; the basics of life should be taught to young people.
In other cases, younger people are left stuff from their parents and grandparents and that’s how a lot of things build up in homes, because it’s passed down from generation to generation and they’re dragging it all around with them for sentimental reasons.
I’ve seen it all, but I’d rather clean a dirty house than a clean house because people who are very particular make me nervous. I remember a woman who had this beautiful big rug and she said to us one day, ‘Don’t walk on that!’. I thought to myself, ‘Why do you have it on the ground then?’
Another time, we took the nozzle off the hoover to clean a woman’s carpet. It left some temporary indentations, which is what happens. When the lady came home she started crying and said, ‘Look what you’ve done!’ She had obviously never done it herself and wasn’t aware that that’s what happens.
Sometimes you have clients who are extremely tidy. I’m a bit like that myself. If I make a meal, I clean up before I even sit down to eat it! Someone once said to me, ‘You have OCD’ and I said, ‘Maybe it’s a good thing because it helps me with my work’.
I only use a few products for cleaning and I’ve no time for robot hoovers and all these new gadgets. As for Marie Kondo and Mrs Hinch? I don’t really follow these people because, to be honest, I think an awful lot of it is very commercialised.
I like to roll up my sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty, and I love seeing how happy people are when their home is clean and tidy. The amount of thank-you cards and hugs that you get… that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”