Moving from a three-bedroom house down to one-room apartment left Sherry from Phoenix with less space but more emotional connection to all of her belongings, making it difficult for her to let go.
One day after coming out of a meeting, Sherry saw a flier about Clutter’s Anonymous, a 12-step program to help individuals who have too much stuff. There, Sherry said she found an outlet of understanding and friendship that helped her address her hoarding tendencies.
Sherry now is the group lead for the Phoenix branch and said she uses her own experiences to offer support to others in like situations.
“It helps because I understand some of the issues that they are having and I have had a certain amount of overcoming the obstacles in my life that I can offer hope to new members,” Sherry said.
Hoarding in Arizona has been increasing, especially among the elderly population, where more agencies are teaming together to help spread awareness and assistance to individuals in need, according to the Arizona Hoarding Task Force.
Sherry said part of the obstacles in dealing with hoarding tendencies is the embarrassment that can arise that make it harder to trust people to come in or to reach out.
“I still keep my secret from a lot of people and I have had a few people in and I have made sufficient progress that my apartment is neat enough for maintenance to come in,” Sherry said.
According to the Southern Arizona Hoarding Task Force, hoarding disorders in the United States affect approximately 5 percent of the population, with 84 percent of individuals having a close relative with hoarding behaviors.
Lisa O’Neill is the director of education at the University of Arizona Center on Aging within the College of Medicine. One of her main focus is helping educate the community to have a better prepared workforce to take care of older adults.
O’Neill was also part of the team that help found the Arizona Hoarding Task Force three years ago and then later helped formed the Southern Arizona chapter.
She said Arizona created the statewide task force composed of 60 agencies and 100 individuals to help facilitate communication among regional groups.
“It became very apparent that everyone knew their piece of pie but not anyone else,” O’Neill said. “They were not aware of the community resources out there.”
Hoarding tendencies, O’Neill said, can start at young age but just don’t become apparent until individuals are older, with the average age being 50.
“They tend to have a lack of insight on the severity of the problem and won’t recognize how bad the problem is until later,” O’Neill said. “One of the big issues is that their insight and motivation will fluctuate.”
O’Neill said that this inability to judge the severity of the situation often stems from hoarders lack of executive function ability, which are high-level abilities that influence tasks such memory, attention and motor skills.
Sheila McCurdy, a certified professional organizer, has been helping individuals for 22 years who have issues out of “the normal range of clutter”.
“We all believe it’s more here because of the elderly population. The elderly really just collect more and have more than other people,” McCurdy said. “A lot of people think elderly are slobs and don’t know how to take care of themselves but that is not the case at all.”
Through her work, McCurdy assists individuals in learning the habit of letting go and said often individuals rather see their items donated rather than throwing it away. This is often the hardest part according to McCurdy, who said trauma is another big factor of hoarding.
One of these individuals who McCurdy has impacted is Tracy who after multiple deaths within her family inherited goods that carried too large of sentimental value for her to let go.
Tracy said she used to work for the University of Arizona and carried a respectful job but then at home, it was like she was living a different life that she said she became embarrassed about.
“My house just got very, very cluttered and then I had some health problems and I had a knee replacement,” Tracy said. “My house was so cluttered, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to walk without tripping on something, so I decided that something had to change.”
Tracy said that during the process, it was more than just getting rid of unnecessary items but learning how to organize and manage what items to keep. Part of the process Tracy said, was finally admitting to herself she had a problem.
“I just feel more in control. Also you get really isolated because you can’t bring friends home because your house is such a mess and now I don’t have to do that anymore,” Tracy said.
Isolation especially in rural areas is something that social worker Karen Lombardi dealt with when she worked for the Pinal-Gila Council for Senior Citizens. She said often the only way any one knew something was wrong was when family called.
Lombardi said she recalls one difficult case where a son called her to seek assistance for his aging mother.
“She wouldn’t let me in but just standing in the doorway I could see the piles down the hallway. They were so high up that they would have been above me,” Lombardi said, who added that often these piles are only one face to the multitude of problems such as depression or addiction.
Currently, there are two bills in the state legislation that are aimed at addressing animal hoarding and this is an avenue Lombardi said she hopes would open up future discussions on tackling other components of hoarding.
“It would be great if there was some way for people to understand more about older adults and what happens and maybe they could come up with some other policies that would affect Adult Protective Services,” Lombardi said.
Hoarding according to Sherry, then becomes a life-long process of both managing one’s possessions and learning when to seek support.
“I found a much more meaningful life and much stronger friends. We don’t have to always agree on things… but we connect on a heart-to heart level that is just beyond belief,” Sherry said.
Razanne Chatila is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The individuals with only the first name listed requested so for anonymity about their hoarding disorder.
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