Sally H., a vibrant 83-year-old New Yorker had a very active social life but never invited friends in to her apartment. She met friends at museums, movies or coffee shops, but never had them into her home. Then one day Sally broke her hip and was taken
to the hospital. A friend was called to retrieve some personal items from Sally’s home and got the key from the super. When she opened the door to the apartment, she understood why Sally never had anyone over. The apartment was filled from floor to ceiling with stuff—papers, boxes, clothes, books, containers and food. There was barely room to get to the kitchen or bathroom.
This is not an unusual story in New York, or any other part of the country. Television shows like Hoarders and Buried Alive are making us more aware of these situations. The problem is not confined to a particular age group, income level or demographic sector. However as I discussed in last month’s column, Hoarding—Are Seniors more Prone? many factors can push seniors over the edge and turn them into hoarders. Dementia, lack of mobility, and waning eyesight can contribute to the problem.
Seniors are particularly vulnerable; they are often targeted for eviction proceedings or reported to the health department as a public health hazard. Since many of these individuals are on a fixed income and have physical or emotional handicaps, they could find themselves homeless and without a support network.
Some local government representatives and social service agencies are just beginning to recognize the extent of this problem and are exploring ways to address it. Brooklyn Assemblywoman, Joan Millman, who represents Assembly District 52 in Brownstone Brooklyn, recently invited hoarding specialist, Michael Golub, to address her staff and make them more sensitive to the complexities of the issue. State Senator, Liz Krueger, who represents Manhattan’s 26th Senate District, an area that consists of a large older population, recently invited social services, government agencies, and aging professionals to a roundtable discussion on what could be done about the issue.
A big part of the problem is the complexity of why people hoard. Many experts point out that hoarding is often the result of deep routed psychological problems that cannot be solved by one simple cleaning. Many hoarders become traumatized by having their homes cleaned, and since the underlying problem still hasn’t been addressed, they simply return to hoarding. Judy Willig, hoarding specialist and Executive Director of Heights and Hills, a community organization that offers support services to the aging in Brooklyn explains, “experts need to proceed by making small changes at first, or you are going to damage the person; hoarders need to be treated”.
In spite of this new awareness, barring expensive counseling or costly therapy, there are still very few official programs that assist seniors with this problem. Adult Protective Services (APS), a state mandated case management program provides a one time heavy duty cleaning service as a means of damage control. Unfortunately this program only addresses the hazardous part of the issue but offers no support so a resident often ends up right back where s/he started, “re-hoarding”.
Some home care agencies have addressed this problem by having the aides keep clients in check who are unable to control their hoarding behavior. A handful of senior centers, primarily in Manhattan, have begun addressing this issue by offering hoarding support groups to members who are identified with the problem. A few centers even have volunteers who visit seniors in their homes to help them sort through their possession.
Most of these programs are done informally. Churches and synagogues often organize volunteers who visit isolated seniors to help them sort through their belongings. Some co-op boards are taking a proactive approach to the problem. If they identify a tenant who appears to be heading towards hoarding, they track down friends or relatives who can help them with the problem.
Although there are very few official programs for seniors who are prone to hoarding, I have discovered a couple nearby. Eviction Intervention Services (EIS), an Upper East Side not-for-profit agency offers a monthly support program named SORT (Space Organization Resource Tools) to help hoarders avoid eviction. The Educational Alliance offers Project ORE (Outreach to Elders), a hoarders support group for seniors at its Sirovich Senior Center on E. 12th Street in Manhattan.
Still, most of the time, the problem remains unresolved. I would like to hear from any of my readers and learn how you handed the situation.
Concerned about an aging parent or loved one? For a free report “Four questions to ask about home care” go to www.joannaleefer.com, home of eldercare expert, Joanna Leefer whose book Eldercare Basics will be available Spring, 2013.