My Father Is a Hoarder

When I learned how serious the problem was, I educated myself on what to do — and not do

by Leslie A. Westbrook • Next Avenue
cluttered garage image
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

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.

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