ELLSWORTH — One case study: a 66-year-old woman recovers from cancer, is independent and is an active hoarder.
There are small paths throughout her home, as well as rodents. Her kitchen and bath facilities are unusable. She has no friends or family.
The woman could be anyone who has gone beyond the bounds of collecting, someone who, like many other individuals with the same disorder, presents a dilemma for municipalities.
Dyan Walsh and Patty Hamilton of Bangor conducted a workshop on hoarding at Ellsworth City Hall March 15 for the Downeast Code Enforcement Officer and Local Plumbing Inspectors Association.
Walsh is with the Eastern Area Agency on Aging and Hamilton is the public health director for Bangor.
They say about 8 percent of the population in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties struggles with hoarding.
Hoarding is defined by the accumulation and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to most people to be of limited value.
The clutter makes it virtually impossible to use living spaces, limiting the resident’s functioning within the home.
And although many believe hoarding to be an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is more often linked to depression.
About 17 percent of hoarders are considered to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 58 percent are diagnosed with depression, said Walsh and Hamilton.
Walsh said she knows there is a problem when she receives a phone call from someone who tells her they can no longer live in their home, but provides no details.
She said the language one uses in speaking with persons with the disorder should be limited to less threatening terms such as “excessive clutter,” “finder” or “keeper” and “collecting.”
Hoarders often suffer from “clutter blindness,” an inability to see the condition of their home or the amount of material they have packed into their space.
“Some people collect animals, keeping dozens or hundreds of pets often in unsanitary conditions,” Walsh and Hamilton said.
Hoarding, they said, is more likely to be found in persons with more education and its roots might be found in a childhood trauma.
The chronic and progressive condition then generally manifests itself among individuals in their 40s and 50s.
Hoarders are often single, perhaps with former partners who were unable to cope with the disorder.
Listening intently at the meeting at Ellsworth City Hall were code enforcement officers and a scattering of firefighters, who, like emergency medical technicians, often are on the front lines in discovering hoarders.
A 2009 study in Melbourne, Australia, found that the homes of hoarders accounted for 24 percent of preventable residential fires.
The hope among those at the meeting this week is that authorities will be made aware of the issue before it becomes intractable.
Walsh and Hamilton circulated a form the homeowner living in problematic conditions is asked to sign allowing the agency to share the information with other officials who might help them.
Among the many hurdles that must be navigated in helping hoarders are the fact that their home is theirs, and even if the property is taken over by the municipality, the clean-up costs are thousands of dollars.
Mike Falvey, CEO for Glenburn and a number of other Bangor area towns, said he found one elderly woman with diabetic neuropathy living in a packed and decrepit mobile home.
“There was a hole in the floor and heaters all over the place with extension cords,” he said. “The family wants the town to deal with it; the town wants the family to deal with it.”
He said that in order to get warm, the woman drives around in her car to stay warm, despite the fact that she does not have a driver’s license.
Even when the hoarding is affecting other renters in a building or neighboring homes, a person’s property rights generally prevail, Falvey said.
“There’s no easy answer to any of this,” he said. “It’s about resources and funding. At the end of the day, it all takes time and money.”
Walsh and Hamilton are members of the Hoarding Workgroup of Eastern Maine, which formed in 2013 to pinpoint resources and support for individuals affected by the disorder.
There are talks of starting a similar group in Hancock County with Sally Smith, a local therapist, helping to organize the effort.