LETHBRIDGE – As Candice Fisher looks over her emails, she points out the number of active cases she and a team of 12 people deal with daily. Currently, as Case Manager, she has 21 open files and believes there are as many as 1,000 homes in the city that likely have a hoarding issue.
“For us, it got started 10 to 12 years ago, and the gentleman who was running our Housing First (program) at the time, started to see there were theses types of issues happening in Lethbridge, and they were, at that time, ultimately putting people’s housing at risk.”
A team was put together made up of representatives from various agencies, to work together to find out who those people were, and to try and not only help them, but also to teach them how to maintain safe and secure housing. Now, not only does the Lethbridge Hoarding Outreach Management and Education Committee have its own resources, but they also work with environmental health inspectors, Lethbridge Police Services, Lethbridge Fire and EMS, seniors support services and mental health outreach teams.
“When we start to define something as a hoard, the biggest factor in that becomes the spaces in the home that were designed for specific purposes, can no longer be used for that purpose," explained Fisher. "So, if you can't sleep in your bed anymore, or you can't cook on your stove' when those activities of daily living start to become impacted, then we define that. There's piece number 1. Piece 2 is when it starts to cause stress or anxiety to the individual or those around them."
Squalor -or filth- can in some instances, also be part of the issue. That can occur as a result of the hoarding, poverty, neglect, inability or unwillingness to keep the space clean. Any of the properties the agency deals with can be one or the other, or a combination of both.
Despite what the common perception may be, it's not mainly seniors who become hoarders. In Lethbridge, Fisher says it's a 50/50 split between those who are over 65 versus those under that age. There are also more male hoarders than females in the city.
Fisher says there are a variety of underlying causes for those who get to the point where there is so much stuffed into their homes or apartments that it can be even difficult to move.
"It really has a lot to do with their ability to process. So, a lot of that executive functioning piece is a little bit skewed...so, sorting, categorizing, reasoning. Those types of things. And then the other piece we add into that is what we call vulnerabilities, risk factors and personal experiences."
Throw in anxiety, depression or other mental illness created by or exacerbated by those vulnerabilities, and it can create a "perfect storm" for hoarding tendencies to develop.
In other cases, it's just something that kind of "gets away" from them. For example, a person who lost someone significant in their lives. Fisher explains how one woman found herself simply unable to cope.
"I said, can you take me back to where you think it started? She said, 'twelve years ago, my mom died.' And I said ok, and she said 'I got so busy looking after her, trying to clean up her house trying to get it ready to be sold. ‘And she said that was her whole world and so when she came home at the end of the day, she just didn't pay attention."
As time went on, Fisher says the woman found herself thinking about how a clean home should be, and that because she had neglected it, the task of cleaning up her house became too daunting and overwhelming for her to even attempt by herself.
"It seems so easy - just go pick up your garbage. But when you have all of these other things that are building in your brain, it makes even the smallest of things difficult to do."
There are also those who attach significance to 'things.' Items may include newspapers, brochures, photographs or trinkets of different kinds that can elicit very strong emotions, especially when attached to a loved one. To get rid of those items would mean getting rid of the memories or connection to that person, and that is unthinkable to some hoarders.
There's a rating scale that Fisher and her team can use to illustrate the degree to which the problem has gotten out of control. Called the 'Clutter Image Rating Scale,' it ranges from 1-10, with one being the neatest and 10 being the most disorganized. The earlier the team can get involved, the higher the likelihood they can help the person in a more timely manner.
If someone thinks that a friend or loved one or even a neighbor may have issues with hoarding, they can contact her and her team and remain anonymous. Even if the suspected hoarder has cut off or tried to cut off contact with most or all of the support people in their lives.
"Their fear is that if that person knows that they've contacted me, then they're going to end that relationship, and nobody wants that. So, they can contact me, and I'll do a little bit of research and figure out what I'm dealing with. Go out and touch base with the client or family. But never do I disclose that it's a family member that's called me. I can take referral calls from anywhere."
In many cases, Fisher says they are able to help the person or people to either clean up their homes and teach them the skill to maintain that, or they can successfully find alternative housing for them that they can also keep clean.
Ultimately, there are some squalor properties that do need to be shut down for health and/or safety or even structural reasons. There can be an enforcement piece and that can also be a tool used to help someone get support in the most extreme cases.
For more information on hoarding, or if you know someone who might need help, contact the Lethbridge Hoarding Outreach Management and Education Committee (HOME) at 403-330-7640 or 587-220-8646 or email [email protected].
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