Agencies develop ‘tool kit’ for hoarding intervention

Forced cleanouts of “hoarder houses” like the one struck by fire in Orléans early Wednesday hardly ever work and only make the hoarding problem worse and harder to deal with in the future, says the researcher behind a two-year study of hoarding disorder in Ottawa.

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This Clutter Image Scale helps people with hoarding disorder rate their accommodation on a scale of 1 to 10.

“Clean-outs aren’t very effective,” said Stephanie Yamin, a psychology professor at St. Paul University. “They are usually very traumatic for the person receiving the cleanout, and they have an almost 100-per-cent recidivism rate. The person gets very, very traumatized.

“We find that after three to six months the person is hoarding once again and the problem is worse than it used to be.”

Yamin did the research for a pilot project on hoarding run by Montfort Renaissance and Options Bytown. The study tracked 15 people with the disorder — 13 women and two men, with an average age of 53 — to better understand the disorder and develop a “tool kit” for other social agencies to use. The report was presented Wednesday at the Champlain Local Health Integration Network in Gloucester, which funded the project.

Hoarding disorder affects 5.3 per cent of the population, but researchers like Yamin suspect the actual incidence is higher. Shame and embarrassment make it a “hidden disorder” that isolates the afflicted.

The disorder often occurs with other illnesses. Participants in the study also suffered from depression, schizophrenia, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and developmental delays, and 75 per cent had other family members with hoarding disorder.

Treatment involves counselling with a “clutter coach” trained in methods to reduce the urge to collect and hoard. Clients might first walk past a store, then go inside, then even try on clothing as a way to gradually overcome their need to acquire and hoard.

Michelle Nouwens, 63, faced eviction from her social housing apartment when she was offered help from clutter coach Krystal Lavigne of Montfort Renaissance.

“It was a very slow, painful process,” said Nouwens. “It was not easy for me to decide what to get rid of and what to keep.”

Though the pilot project received a one-time funding of $247,000, the methods and supporting research makes it useful for other social agencies to use in the future, said Lise Girard, director of Montfort Renaissance.

“We made a tool kit that’s made for the people who work one-on-one with clients. They can use it to help make their environment a better place to live in, with less clutter and less risk around fire, infestations or public health issues. Most of our partners have clients who are struggling with these issues.”

That became apparent earlier in the day when Ottawa firefighters were called to a house on Colony Square in Orléans. While en route, crews were warned the home was occupied by a known hoarder and to use extra caution. There were no injuries and the fire was contained to the main floor.

Fire is a special hazard for hoarders: Not only can escape routes be blocked by clutter, but stacks of belongings can topple onto emergency crews. In some cases, the waterlogged belongings are so heavy they cause the floor to collapse. Gwen Louise, a fire prevention officer with the City of Ottawa, said she sees the problem frequently.

Fire prevention officers advised hoarders about the importance of having three-foot wide pathways throughout the residence to ensure someone can get out quickly in case of fire. Improper use of extension cords or stacks of paper stored too close to heat sources are other common risks, she said.

— With files from Vito Pilieci

Disclaimer:  The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.

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