Hoarding Woes: Fire & Death

The headline read that for the second time in a week Portland Fire Fighters were stymied by home clutter fighting a fire and most recently a man died in his burning hoarding home. (more here)

My mom didn’t have a fire or near miss as far as I could tell. She sat in her filthy basement, in her soiled, worn chair wrapped in blankets, clutching a heating pad for warmth. No furnace. She was lucky, I think….so was I.

My hoarding Auntie did have a fire some 11 years ago.It burned a major portion of her house. She survived. My mom, who was there suffered permanent damage to bottoms of her burned feet via her melting tennis shoes. Major renovations were in order. Did my Auntie learn her lesson? Nope. When I rescued her in April 2010, hypothermic, lying beneath a mountain of cascaded stuff on her dining room floor, she also had fried fingers wrapped in gauze and badly blistered. How? That heating pad that had days before burned up as she sat clutching it on her couch…the front of the couch has large burn marks from the fabric melting. Was I lucky again….yes.

But, in the end the blessing was my Aunt’s broken bones and dementia. Because really it was ludicrous to imagine her cooking in that dangerous kitchen. I lucked out…I didn’t have to make the hard decision.

Luck would have run out….for me too. Because in the end, each of us as children, family, friends, case workers caring for those purposely putting them selves at risk, will have to ask what their (your) responsibility is if you ignore the risk.

Why do you ignore the danger? Short answer: you are a coward, you are lazy, you are afraid of the sometimes ferocious and exhausting battle (coward). Harsh? Harsh is them burning up in a house or consumed by gases. 

How much can you ban or control someone from doing?

I lucked out. I was lucky to not have to answer the lingering question: why did I not do what a responsible person does to take care of those at risk? I have waxed on here before about the mental journey one goes through whether they are dead or alive while cleaning up their hoarding mess. It is a very hard journey. It would be doubly hard if they died because you were afraid to make the hard decisions.

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3 thoughts on “Hoarding Woes: Fire & Death

  1. You are right about the need to do something. But, unfortunately, it is very difficult to do something if you are not the hoarder. Mom worried about the hoarders in our family. I had some friends who were mental health experts and gave me ideas on how to proceed. I got a mental health agency to do outreach to one of the hoarders in our family who had a house in about the same condition as your mom and your aunt. They got the hoarder to come in for mental health treatment.

    Nothing happened to clean up that house in 10 years. Maybe mental health treatment kept hoarder from worse depression and illness, but the house stayed the same. In the end, it was the mental health counselor who convinced the hoarder to essentially walk away from the house and live in subsidized mental health housing. Hoarder sold the house “as is” to a nearby home owner and got something back but not nearly what it would have been worth if it were kept up. Hoarder lived over 10 years in clutter, no heat, smells and cats, etc. Really, lots of people tried. But legally there are very few things you can do to make a hoarder clean and safe. If they own the house, you can’t throw them out. I am thankful, like you, that there were no fires or other catastrophes. Because, in the end, I couldn’t change very much.

    1. And, I totally get what you are saying and the reality of it all. But, my underlying point, which I know you see, is that to do nothing and they die from whatever is a weak response. I have no illusions. I do believe that all the shows are giving an overwhelming sense of false hope. I do believe that in the end force may be a better solution than all the feel good beliefs in a mental health response. Mental illness, dementia at some point stare a decision maker in the face and the option is no longer negotiation.

      The scales of free will, fee choice, your life, live and let live vs. illness, danger, health hazard to others etc. etc. etc. tip. I butted heads with my mom and backed down more than once. I also hurt her deeply with outbursts and frustrations. It was not easy and as I say ‘I lucked out’ She died. But had she not and I finally knew, I think I would now advocate (if one has the legal standing to force the issue) less negotiations and take a stand. If it fails, you tried.

      But, I am thankful I am not someone that did nothing at all because of fears. I know individuals involved this week with trauma support for the family members of the man that burned up in the hoarding home. The families grief and sadness fall way beyond the ‘normal’ scales. They stood by and did little for years and did not want to take the man on. Their consciences are not clean. And, they still have a mess to contend with now, an even worse mess…smoke, water damage and all.

      And, in this region there are actions the County can do regardless of neighbor’s impact, children inside, pet risk (those are nice leverages to have), there are options that involve governmental force and removal. Not say one should willy nilly run over the ‘home is castle’ rule, but if a family member involved at some point I do believe it still comes down to ‘let them burn up in a home because it is their right to live that way’ vs. at least try and move through the wrenching process and be able to say you tried.

      I was prompted to write all this out of agitation/frustration last night when someone told me in the usual lockstep mode of describing the difficulties etc. and I thought screw the difficulties. Screw the BS excuses and explanations and BS responses from hoarders…. Course am still venting 🙂 Maybe it is the ‘smoker’s carelessness’ deal. We don’t force a home owner that drinks way to much and smokes and almost sets his house on fire from drinking/smoking. His right. His health, His loss, His death. Ok, I feel better now…. 🙂

    2. Slow and easy…I promise. We will have some help and it will prompt that typical hoarding quandry: some one asking you a hundred times a day or more ‘what do you want to do with this?’

      And, I too Ginny suffer from this thing about a picture (sacred to me) keepsake being tossed and some feeling of loss. The seeds of a hoarder? Some would say. Holding on the everything because of sentimentality is problematic. If we have the discipline to hold onto some, as a tribute, then I believe it is nice. Pictures are harder. I recently tossed a whole box of pictures from the 60’s I spose. They belonged to a woman that I wrote about on here once. She too turned out to be a hoarder. Her nephew/sister came out and cleaned the house out and collected a box of pics, some of which pertained to my mom. The rest were of people that none of us knew. Memories. The sister of the decedent didn’t want them and I had no emotional connection. So they went in the trash. That was mentally hard for me. I won’t delve into the why’s, don’t really know. But, that disconnection, lonely people, old smiles, new tragedy all seemed darkish. Yes, we all have our individual battles when discarding excessive stuff. Thanks!

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