When the phone rang one afternoon last December, it was an unfamiliar number, but I immediately recognized my father’s area code. It was his landlord. Before he'd uttered a single word, I was already braced for bad news.
And while the news was definitely bad, it wasn’t what I expected.
“Have you seen your father’s place?” came a voice with a thick Thai accent.
“Oh boy,” I thought, “we’re finally going to have to deal with this.”
The Secret Life of a Hoarder
My 85-year-old father lives four hours away from me, but I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like. My work keeps me very busy, gas is expensive here in Southern California, plus I have to spring for a hotel and restaurant meals when I visit because there’s no room at his place. There’s barely room for him. Over the years, my father "graduated" from being a pack rat to a bona fide hoarder.
Ever since my parents divorced in the 1960s, Dad has lived alone. The first decade, he rented a 4,000-square-foot former youth center for $300 a month. For the past 23 years, he has lived in an 800-square-foot studio in a rough neighborhood in San Diego. It’s a dump, but the rent still eats up a big chunk of his Social Security and veteran’s pension.
My father is smart, funny, interesting and interested in life. He likes particle physics and all kinds of music, from jazz to classical to Latin. He still makes the 20-minute drive over the border to Tijuana regularly to hear live salsa music. Back in the day, my pop was a gifted and respected jazz pianist, but he quit playing about five years ago, when his arthritis got too bad. I think that’s when his life went off the rails.
I started noticing that my father’s musical “collections” were getting out of hand. His place was packed with some 10,000 LPs, stacks of CDs that were inching toward his bed and 33 loudspeakers, stacked floor-to-ceiling (talk about a “wall of sound”).
Gradually the items filling his place weren’t just music and audio devices: He also had thousands of plastic shopping bags, boxes of books and tons of junky items acquired at thrift stores.
On a visit three or four years ago, I did my best to hide my horror and offered to do “a little cleaning up.” Wearing a face mask and rubber gloves, I solicited his guidance on what could be thrown out. I bought some large plastic boxes and put his important papers in there; clothing was folded and placed into plastic hampers. After a few hours, we had created a “doughnut hole” in the middle of his living room. We had a long way to go, but it was a start.
(MORE: 9 Tips for Cleaning Out Your Late Parent's Home)
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The next time I went to see him, about a year later, I was appalled to discover that things had actually gotten worse. In between visits, I’d tried to take more steps toward clearing out his place — even offering to bring in other family members to help — but my father resisted. He knew he had a problem, but he wasn’t ready to separate his cherished possessions from the junk. I grew frustrated and decided to adopt a “live and let hoard” philosophy.
Two years ago, my sister and I drove down to take him out for his birthday. The corridors through the piles were all but gone. His baby grand piano was piled so high with stuff that its top could not be opened, let alone have its ivories tickled.
The bathroom floor was coated in talcum powder and looked like a snowstorm had blown through. To reach the bathroom from the living room, one had to climb over the clothing hampers, stacks of boxes and Tower Records bags filled with CDs.
His makeshift kitchen had a fridge, a hot plate, half a dozen cans of WD-40, cases of motor oil, an amplifier, a cardboard box labeled “Sony cassettes” and a wall of shelves crammed with so many swollen cans of expired food that was it looked like the Tower of Pisa.
At lunch, my sister and I decided to candidly address the situation. Sheepishly, with obvious shame and embarrassment, our father finally admitted that things were totally out of control. But he continued to make feeble excuses and didn’t seem ready to accept help.
Frustrated, my sister made it clear that she wouldn’t have anything further to do with the situation until he called with a firm date when we could come back and begin the clearing-out process for real. Sadly, Pop couldn’t do that — though he repeatedly said he’d love for us to continue to visit.
And that’s how we left things until the landlord called.
The Long Road to Recovery
The first thing I did when I hung up that day was call my father. I told him he was ruining my relationship with my sister and bringing me into a major dispute with his landlord. I said I was really angry about what his problem was doing to my life.
Something clicked. Threatened with eviction and realizing the pain he was causing the daughter he loved so much, my father finally acknowledged how serious the problem was and said he’d let me help him. I negotiated a $50 rent reduction with the landlord — on the condition that my father truly began to clear stuff out.
I began researching professional help for hoarders. I found organizations and individuals who specialized in this condition, including the experts who appear on the compelling A&E show Hoarders. I forced myself to watch a few episodes to prepare myself for what lay ahead.
One organization that clears out houses, 1-800-Hoarders.com, sounded perfect, except they charge $3,500 a day. Even if we had the money, I wasn’t sure my father was psychologically prepared for that. I saw how the subjects on Hoarders reacted to being “invaded,” and I felt he would be the same.
I kept digging until I finally hit pay dirt. I stumbled upon a wealth of resources from the San Diego Hoarding Collaborative (many cities have hoarding task forces), which listed a free clinical trial run by the University of California, San Diego in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I wasted no time calling and was thrilled to learn that the program was still open. But first my father had to qualify — and there was no guarantee that he’d get into the group that included home visits (the other one was basically just cognitive therapy).
Prepared for defeat, I dialed my father’s number to see if he was willing to do this. To my huge relief, he said yes, and even admitted he was hoping for the home visits group. (Many hoarders prefer to get help from outside professional organizers rather than family members and are adverse to the heavy psychological work of dealing with the mental aspect of hoarding.)
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