Several months ago, I met with a hoarder; I’ll call him Dr. F. An 89 year old retired physician, he lives alone in a 5 bedroom house, in which every room is literally filled with “stuff.”
His kitchen has an 18-inch aisle to walk through; all other space is piled 6 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, and his bed cannot be slept on. He sleeps on a cot in the basement. We found two chairs on the first floor on which he can sit. Every other horizontal surface 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 who suffocated when the tons of paper and debris in their apartment fell on them. He never has company and admits that things have replaced people in his life. He knows that he is under great risk of falling and that for people his age, falls are often life altering.
We discussed all these issues, and suggested a plan to make one room in his house—the den next to the kitchen – a space he could sit in. That was a modest goal. We were not trying to change him or clean out his home; we just wanted 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.
Dr. F seemed to truly enjoy our visit and we believe 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 has said. “I know what could happen if I fall. But this is how I live. I’m doing pretty well for 89. 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 overweight, 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 everyday.
I thought about adult children who worry and try to convince their parents to use grab bars, to move to one story living, to stop driving, to move to a safer enviornment. 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 wonder, 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.
“Honor 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.