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Hoarding — beyond the stereotype, beyond the fire
Elizabeth Fry will tell you that hoarders are often the nicest people you might want to meet.
But Fry, president and founder of Beyond the Fork in the Road, a Denver-based company that specializes in helping folks, often seniors, downsize, will also tell you that what hoarders do can not only be dangerous to themselves — but also to others.
In the wake of last Wednesday’s fatal fire in the borough, it’s easy to understand Fry’s points.
The fire victims, Geoffrey Atwell, 74, and Lorraine Crouse, 77, of 104 S. Fourth St., were described by some as nice, albeit somewhat reclusive, individuals. And those are two characteristics common in the hoarder personality, Fry said. It is not clear what specific factors drove the Denver couple to hoard.
In an odd synchronicity, Fry, in the week prior to the March 15 fire, had completed formal training for working with hoarders.
The training, which occurred in Indianapolis, was taught in large part by Matt Paxton, the founder of Clutter Cleaner, author of “The Secret Lives of Hoarders,” and host of the “Hoarders” television show which airs on A&E.
Though this was formal training for Fry, the reality is that she has dealt with hoarders for years as she helps those tackling the tricky business of downsizing and relocating.
She stresses the success of working with hoarders starts with showing these folks, who are harboring a real addiction, a true sense of respect.
“No matter how sad or frustrating it can be, our staff is trained to demonstrate the highest level of compassion, to never be judgmental and to always give support,” said Fry. “Our experience is that hoarders are incredibly intelligent, not at all lazy, and are seeking self-worth or happiness.”
Indeed, as Paxton explained to Fry and her fellow students, most hoarders are in the caregiving profession such as teachers, medical personnel, and social workers.
And that goes back to Fry’s initial point that the majority of hoarders are good people. The problem is, that somewhere along the way, either a physical or emotional trauma triggered an astonishing and downward chain of events culminating in hoarding.
There are age-related characteristics to hoarding, said Fry, who breaks it down like this:
Age 85-plus: These were “the good kids” who grew up in the hard-scrabble Depression and were taught to save as much as possible. This age group is also the fastest-growing demographic in hoarding.
Age 75-plus. Pre-boomers, they went to war, got married, started out with little and then kept what they had. For this group, food hoarding is the most pronounced.
Age 60-plus. For most of these Boomers, hoarding began following a difficult divorce or relationship break-up. In addition, they are the ones usually tasked with cleaning out the homes of the 85-plus groups. Sometimes the hoarding begins when the boxes removed from relatives’ homes just find a space in an attic, garage, and basement and remain unpacked.
Under 45-year-olds. Divorces here also play a role in hoarding. In addition, Fry calls this younger group the “QVC hoarders” who just keep buying and buying, usually from home shopping networks or on-line entities.
Another key demographic group of hoarders: women, particularly widows.
Hoarding, said Fry, also has a geographical component. The Washington, D.C., region has the highest percentage of hoarders along with areas in Northern California, Michigan, Ohio, and metropolitan Boston.
“I think with what I’m seeing here, especially in Lancaster County, supports the findings that Pennsylvania had the highest numbers of elderly rural area hoarders,” said Fry.
The numbers of hoarders are escalating at alarming rates as the U.S. population ages, she said.
According to Boston University studies conducted in 2006, 2012, and 2016, the numbers of hoarders grew from three million to 10 million to 14.5 million.
“This is not going to stop,” she warned.
Trauma, again whether physical or emotional, is the trigger for hoarding. Professionals who deal with hoarding can often trace that trigger — if the hoarder is unwilling or unable to share — by materials at the bottom of piles.
“We do a date-time check in each room,” she said. “The magazines, the mail gives you a true time stamp of the physical or emotional incident that happened.”
Fry recommends that, whenever possible, family and friends try to intervene before the problem gets out of hand. Sometimes that may require being a bit nosy.
For example, some homes may look very normal from the exterior, offering no hint of hoarding. But if a lot of time has passed since an invitation to visit has been extended, that may be a tip-off the person is hiding a problem.
And, even if visits occur and the public rooms — living room, kitchen, dining room, etc. — seem normal with perhaps a few piles here and there, that may be an indication of problems in upstairs bedrooms, the garage, attic, basement, or garden sheds.
Fry said it is essential not to be critical or aggressive towards the hoarder.
To begin the conversation, invite the person outdoors, which Fry terms “neutral territory.”
It is also important not to just dig in and start the clean-up without the hoarder’s participation. Often, too, among the items can be valuables like jewelry and cash so the hoard must be carefully dissembled.
The hoarding addiction is deep-seated and can be exacerbated by inappropriate responses. Items that look useless or appear to be trash become sentimental to the hoarder and fill an emotional abyss.
Fry recommends that professionals be involved in the cleanup which can not just be emotionally challenging but is frequently fraught with dangers.
She and her team suit up completely and often need to wear respirators to deal with the resultant squalor of hoarding —mold, bacteria from animal and insect feces, and leaking chemical materials.
Those who clean out hoarders’ properties must also be careful of where they step. The first issue is trying to maintain balance and not get buried in the debris.
The weight of materials can also cause structural damage to floors.
“Four cubic yards of ‘stuff’ amounts to 10,000 pounds,” Fry said. “That’s what’s making it dangerous.”
She recalled working in one home where the ‘stuff’ so damaged the structure that the building had to be demolished.
As in the case of what first responders encountered in the Denver fire, the hoarding in which materials can block windows, doorways, and stairs, endanger the occupants and those trying to help.
Fry spoke of one incident in which it took EMS personnel three hours to extricate a heavy-set woman from her second-floor bedroom due to her hoarding.
In another case, a 60-year-old man fell and was unable to get up after being overcome by falling debris in a third-floor. It was only after a postal worker complained about deliveries not collected that the landlord checked on the man. By that point, the hoarder was so dehydrated that his organs began to shut down. He was never able to fully recover and now resides in a skilled nursing unit.
Locally, Denver Fire Chief Shannon Hilton said firefighters had to carry the two victims, found in a second-floor bedroom where the fire apparently resulted due to a propane heater, down the stairs and out the back door, the shortest path through the hoard.
Both were unconscious when found. Atwell died at the scene. Crouse, the homeowner, was taken to Ephrata Wellspan Community Hospital where she died.
Hilton said this was only the second or third time in five years where he had enountered such a situation. He said it was tough to fight the fire because of the food, trash, and clothing piled high throughout the house.
Because the fire burned through the second-floor wall to the adjoining 106 S. Fourth St., the four-member Grimshaw family living there has been displaced until serious structural repairs can be made.
Fry said early intervention into a hoarding situation is imperative. Also, if the hoard can be cleared, follow-up care is essential.
“This is not a problem that is going away any time soon,” she said.
Fry has served as a congressional delegate to two White House Conferences on Aging, has testified on a variety of aging issues in Congress and was instrumental in passing legislation related to housing needs of the elderly. Her company is based at 56-F Church St. in Denver. The Web site is beyondtheforkintheroad.com