Community Event Addresses Problem Of Hoarding

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By: James Kinsella
Published: 03/16/12

The man rose to tell a story whose general outlines are more common than people might think.

He said his daughter, 54, is a hoarder. She has been hoarding for 20 to 25 years. He said she also faces mental health issues, and is stubborn as well.

“She’s in denial,” the man said. “I feel like I’m in a stalemate here. There’s nothing to do because she isn’t cooperating.”

The man, who did not identify himself, was one of more than 70 people who attended an educational event last Friday hosted by the Mid-Cape Hoarding Task Force. The event was held in the Tilden Arts Center at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable.

The task force wants to develop a coordinated response among community agencies to the problem of hoarding, facing the issue in a sensitive and responsible fashion.

According to the task force, ordinary clutter crosses the line into compulsive cluttering, or hoarding, when living spaces become so cluttered that their use is impaired or impassable, and the person accumulating the items suffers significant distress or impairment in functioning as a result of the clutter.

“Clutter becomes a problem when spaces in the home cannot be used for their intended purpose (i.e., a stove cannot be used for cooking), or possessions pose a health or safety hazard and jeopardize a tenancy,” according to the task force.

“The hoarder sees a value in the item and is certain that there’s a use for it,” according to the task force. “Discarding items is seen as wasteful. The person may display an extreme emotional attachment to the items collected and to part with them could cause significant anxiety and distress.”

Lee A. Mannillo, chairman of the task force, said last Friday that Barnstable County officials have directly assisted 10 to 15 homes beset by hoarding over the past two years.

Another member of the task force, Erika Woods, assistant health agent in Orleans, said, “There are a lot more we don’t know about.”

The chance that any given home or condominium may be hiding hoarding from the outside can pose a special problem for firefighters trying to save lives, said John Donlan, assistant chief at the Dennis Fire Department, who spoke at Friday’s event.

Mr. Donlan said he began encountering hoarding at fire scenes as far back as the 1970s, though firefighters were not sure what to call the problem then. “It makes it very difficult to search” for someone through the smoky conditions inside a home during a fire, Mr. Donlan said.

“It’s a really big concern for us,” Mr. Donlan said. “We are not aware of where these houses are.”

But Mr. Donlan and members of the task force said officials often lack the right to enter premises where hoarding has been going on until the hoarding has tipped over into a significant sanitary or health issue.

“This is America, this is Massachusetts,” a place where personal liberty is prized, according to Paul Wild, contracts and customer services manager at Elder Services of Cape Cod & the Islands. Mr. Wild, who moderated last Friday’s event, said, “We really have to work with the hoarders.”

The discussion was preceded by a showing of “My Mother’s Garden,” a documentary by Cynthia Lester about her mother, Eugenia Lester, who engages in compulsive hoarding.

In the film, all of Eugenia Lester’s children are deeply affected by their mother’s hoarding as they grow up. By the time they have grown older and moved away, the hoarding at the house, which is in the San Fernando Valley in California, has reached a point where the clutter literally has pushed Eugenia out of her house and into her garden.

The hoarding also has reached a point where it has attracted the attention of municipal officials.

Cynthia Lester persuades her mother to come east with her and stay in New York City while Cynthia’s brothers undertake the cleaning of a house awash in junk and trash, not to mention rotting food, dead rats and rat feces.

Eugenia Lester at first seems better in New York, but then begins to hoard again and clutter Cynthia’s apartment. She suddenly flies back to California, where she is shocked by her now-clutter free house.

“You guys robbed me,” Eugenia tells her sons, crying. “I hate you people—you rob me.”

Eugenia falls into a depression. Her children find an assisted living place for her to live and arrange for her to receive mental health treatment. Rent on her cleaned and renovated house pays the bills. The film ends on an optimistic note.

Among those who rose to speak at the event following the showing of the film was Bo Chu of Hyannis. “I’m a hoarder,” Mr. Chu said. “My mother was a hoarder. The woman who took me in was a hoarder.” His stuff, he said, remains at that woman’s home.

At present, Mr. Chu said, he is a resident at the NOAH Shelter in Hyannis, “where fortunately I am not able to hoard.” 

He said he would like to organize a cable television program that would focus on hoarding, as well as a weekly event held at local churches.

Mr. Wild, who said that 80 percent of hoarders grew up in a home with a hoarder, said another desirable outcome of Friday’s event would be the creation of one or more support groups that could offer help to local hoarders.

Mr. Wild further said the hoarding can be a chronic problem that can involve the need for psychiatric help as well as the assistance of a clean-out service on a continuing basis. “There’s a lot of backsliding,” he said.

He also cautioned against too easily using the word “hoarding” to apply to circumstances more accurately described as clutter. In particular, he said, hoarding is clutter that reaches a point where it prevents the use of such things as rooms or a bathtub or a kitchen.

Deborah Scavotto, senior move manager at Smooth Moving for Seniors, spoke of a woman with whom she worked who was trouble keeping her place clean, and who also faced economic trouble.

“She was having a hard time, but I would not put hoarding into the discussion,” Ms. Scavotto said.

One man decried draconian methods which he said had been taken by government agencies against people he knew who had messy houses.

In one case, he said, the state Department of Social Services took two small children out of a messy home away from their mother, a middle-aged woman. A government community service crew, he said, proceeded to empty the house of everything, including the children’s toys, and also vandalized the doors and walls.

In the second case, he said a community work crew engaged in the same kind of performance at the home of an 80-year-old World War II veteran, who died shortly thereafter.

In response, Mr. Wild said he doubted the therapeutic value of a wholesale removal of items from a home.
As a better approach, he said, “Sometimes it’s a negotiating thing. You have to be able to make a deal” with the person living in the home.

One woman at the event said, “I want to get my mother help. I don’t want to have some big bad government agency come in.”

Speaking for some people with cluttered homes, Ms. Scavotto said they often have plans to clean the clutter. “They just can’t take the next step,” she said.

Cleaning out the clutter, she said, can take weeks or months. “It didn’t get like this overnight,” she said.

Mr. Wild said providing continuing help for hoarders would be a more sensible approach than waiting for matters to build to a head. “The problem is, the hoarder has a certain amount of shame,” he said. “They won’t let you in the door in the first place.”

The man who spoke of his daughter who is a hoarder and has resisted his efforts to help said she does realize she has a problem. “Deep down, she does want help,” he said.

More information about hoarding is available at www.hoardingcapecod.org.

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