Officials warn about the dangers of hoarding

Seniors told how to recognize disorder that poses risk to themselves and rescuers

August 13, 2006|By ELLIE BAUBLITZ | ELLIE BAUBLITZ,SUN REPORTER

At the lethal fire in Eldersburg where Richard Hamilton Stewart, 78, and his son Richard Jr., 51, died in the early morning of July 23, firefighters had trouble searching for the men because of the amount of clutter in the house.

Sykesville firefighters said they also had trouble getting into the same home last winter when they went on a medical call for another family member.

Hoarding is a recognized obsessive/compulsive disorder and to help people understand it better, Gail Jones, Carroll County Bureau of Aging's Guardianship Program Coordinator, has been making the rounds at senior centers to talk about the problem.

Jones admitted, "my office looks like a pigsty. I'm not a hoarder; I'm a clutterer. And there is a difference," she told a group of seniors at the Westminster Senior Activities Center.

Jones used herself as an example of a clutterer versus a hoarder, who suffers from the disorder.

The Westminster visit last week was her third to the five county senior centers to discuss hoarding and cluttering with older adults, who most frequently have the problem.

Hoarding is when a person keeps useless things, such as old newspapers, broken batteries and junk mail until the home is filled with it -- from the living room to the bathtub and even the refrigerator, she said.

"If you held a $50 bill in one hand and a broken battery in the other, and asked a hoarder which was more valuable, they couldn't tell you," Jones said. "And trying to take either away from them will cause anxiety."

Hoarding is an obsessive/compulsive disorder for which there is no known cause, Jones said. Professional behavioral therapy is the best hope hoarders have in overcoming their problem, and that is a slow, difficult process, taking a minimum of 18 months to show even a small result.

"They don't know how to stop," she said. "They know what they're doing is wrong, but they can't or won't take the first step to stop."

When the person realizes things have gotten out of hand, he/she usually won't let anyone in their house and may not even let others around them in any kind of situation because they're so embarrassed, Jones said.

Others may not even know there's a problem until it's too late.

"Clutter really complicates the search and rescue process [in a fire]," said State Fire Marshal William Barnard. "Firefighters are taught to work in teams and in a pattern in the primary search for people, but with all that material that has been saved, it's an additional obstruction they have to go through."

It's also a danger to the firefighters if a stack of papers or other material falls on them in an already dangerous situation, Barnard said.

"The Stewarts' house is probably one of the top five worst that I've seen," Barnard said. "They had a little bit of everything. They had a lot of stuff."

Jones recalled a story where the clutter was so bad that a pile fell on the homeowner and killed him. She described homes where so many newspapers were stacked up that the rooms looked like rats' nests. Newspapers are a favorite for hoarders to collect, she said.

Jones' favorite book on hoarding and how to try to overcome the problem is Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding by Fugen Neziroglu, Jerome Bubrick and Dr. Jose Yaryura-Tobias. It's one of many books available on reducing and organizing clutter, she said.

"The book takes hoarders through step by step to stop hoarding," she said. "You start with from three to six boxes and mark them for things you have to keep, things to throw away, things to give away, things to recycle."

Irene Pickett, 70, admitted her two-bedroom apartment is cluttered, but it is with things that she and her husband, James, 73, use for hobbies. The floor and furniture are clean.

She tries to follow her late mother's rule: "A place for everything and everything in its place," Pickett said, who listened to Jones' talk.

Jones also offered the seniors numerous tips for reducing clutter to avoid hoarding and described other types of hoarders.

Dementia-related hoarding often involves keeping newspapers and paper products. Animal hoarding can often turn tragic.

Someone can have many animals, but if they are being taken care of properly, it may not be considered hoarding. If the person "has 20 to 100 cats, horses with long hooves, dead animals -- they don't see the animals as dead," that's hoarding, said Nicky Ratliff, Humane Society of Carroll County director.

Larry Leitch, Carroll County Health Department director, noted that hoarding, although a mental health problem, is difficult to address as long as it is kept inside a person's house, and is not a public health problem.

"As long as they're not bothering anybody else, there's not much you can do," he said.

Ratliff said that after encountering a hoarding problem some time ago, she called a meeting of service providers to talk about things they could do, but the only thing to come out of it was "we met each other and we talked, and we got an understanding on what we couldn't do, and on who to call and talk to."

ellie.baublitz@baltsun.com

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