Several months ago, I met with a hoarder; I’ll call him Dr. F. An eighty-nine-year-old retired physician, he lives alone in a five-bedroom house, in which every room is literally filled with “stuff.” His kitchen has an eighteen-inch aisle to walk through; all other space is covered in piles that stand six feet high. He has no access to his sink or stove and receives home-delivered meals. None of the bedrooms in the house can be walked into, because they are stuffed to the brim, and even his bed is covered and cannot be slept on. Dr. F sleeps on a cot in the basement. There are two chairs on the first floor on which he can sit. Every other horizontal surface in the house is occupied. His garage and basement, like the other rooms, are accessed by narrow aisles.
Dr. F is aware that he hoards. In fact, he has read many articles about hoarding and talks of the Collyer Brothers, two famous hoarders in New York City. The younger of the two suffocated when the tons of paper and debris in their apartment fell on him as he was delivering food to the elder, who subsequently starved to death a few days later. Dr. F never has company and admits that things have replaced people in his life. He knows that he is at great risk of falling and that for people his age, falls are often life-altering.
We discussed all of these issues, and suggested a plan for one room in his house—the den next to the kitchen. The goal was modest: not to change him or clean out his home, but simply to provide one area where could sit and talk to friends. Although Dr. F is well-to-do, we wanted to remove money as a barrier to our services and offered help at no charge so he could experience working with us and develop trust. He greatly enjoyed our visits and we believed he would enjoy simply having people to talk to, regardless of what got accomplished.
Repeatedly, however, he turned us down. “I know what hoarding has cost me in terms of connections to people,” he said. “I know what could happen if I fall. But this is how I live. I’m doing pretty well for eighty-nine. I haven’t fallen yet and I hope I don’t, but that is a risk I am willing to live with.”
I thought about what he said. We all take risks. Some of us smoke, some of us are non-compliant with medications, some of us are morbidly obese, some of us postpone mammograms and many of us talk on cell phones while driving. Even though we know the potential consequences, we assume risk every day.
I thought about adult children who worry and try to convince their parents to use grab bars, to move to one-story housing, to stop driving. I respect Dr. F and his right to assume risk and live as he chooses. But he is not my parent. How much harder it must be, I think, to watch those we love put themselves in harm’s way, regardless of how competent they are to make that decision. Our parents protected us from danger when we were young; we feel an obligation and a desire to do the same for them. But they are not children. They are adults.
The concept of honoring thy father and mother has never seemed so complex. My parents died when I was very young. I wonder how I would honor my father and mother if they were alive today.
Margit Novack is the Founding President of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM). She can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at (610) 853-4300. See www.movingsolutions.com for more information.