COVID-19 the ‘perfect storm’ for people battling hoarding disorder

Canadians who hoard have been finding it difficult to control their disorder this past year due to COVID-19 restrictions that have cut them off from the support they need.

They are “already among our most isolated clients … and the pandemic just made that all so much harder,” said Lucie Hager, the associate regional manager for community support programs at VHA Home HealthCare, a charitable organization in Toronto that “offers 24/7 support services to people of all ages and cultural backgrounds,” according to its website.

Hager offers support and extreme cleaning programs for people suffering from what is often a lifelong disorder, but under lockdown restrictions, she can no longer go to their homes. Instead, clients participate in a virtual support group.

She said women are more likely to reach out for help with hoarding, which may explain why most of her clients are female. In a 2019 VHA program, for example, only three of the 50 participants were men.

Paul LeBlanc, 47, was one of them. As a child, he would collect old radios and other trashed electronics to fix them up and recycle waste.

“When I ended up on my own,” LeBlanc said, “things changed.”

With a counsellor’s help, LeBlanc is working to clean parts of his house in sections. (Paul LeBlanc)

In his mid 20s, he repaired computers for a living and found himself accumulating old parts in the hopes that maybe others could use them.

By the time LeBlanc realized things had gotten out of hand, the task of getting rid of it all seemed too overwhelming.

Before the pandemic, he had in-person weekly visits with a VHA counsellor who helped him declutter.

“He would sit on a chair and coach me through it, and basically it worked out well,” LeBlanc said.

Anxiety increased with pandemic

When the pandemic hit, his in-person sessions were cancelled and his anxiety increased.

“The hoarding gets worse because you’re not really cleaning up because you’re depressed,” LeBlanc said. “It’s like, ‘Why bother right now? Because nobody’s coming over.'”

He started virtual sessions with Hager, which come with their own challenges, he said.

Lucie Hager, associate regional manager for community support programs at VHA Home HealthCare in Toronto, has been holding virtual sessions with hoarding disorder clients during the pandemic. (Jon Castell/CBC)

“It helps having somebody come to the house,” LeBlanc said. “It gives you motivation and a kick in the ass.”

Despite the setbacks, LeBlanc has made progress, clearing a section of his home last week.

“Making those decisions about what to keep and what to let go of is really challenging for clients,” Hager said.

She encourages them to spend 15 minutes going through belongings before spending another 15 minutes deciding whether to keep something, throw it out or donate it.

People vulnerable to hoarding ‘not managing now’

Elaine Birchall is a hoarding behaviour and intervention specialist in Ottawa and co-author of Conquer the Clutter: Strategies to Identify, Manage, and Overcome Hoarding.

Birchall describes hoarding as a spectrum with three general criteria: an excessive accumulation of stuff, living spaces not being used for their intended purposes and causing distress to the person hoarding or others around them.

“As soon as you’re overwhelmed, you are very vulnerable to hoarding setting in,” Birchall said. “COVID-19 is a perfect storm for that.”

People vulnerable to hoarding before the pandemic who were managing are not managing now, she said.

“If you had an acquisition issue before, it’s increasing because that’s your vehicle. That’s your modality for getting your needs met — and online shopping, there is no shortage until your credit card crashes.”

Birchall has helped clients who have a hoarding disorder for nearly 20 years. She said several clients who completed their treatment years ago returned for help when Ontario locked down at various times during the pandemic.

No place to dump excess stuff

With donation bins locked up and thrift stores temporarily shuttered, it’s more difficult to find a place to let go of unneeded belongings.

Clients engage in cognitive behavioural therapy, where they learn how to reduce the clutter in their home and start letting go of things, Hager, of VHA Home HealthCare, said.

But the unpredictability and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it harder for Hager’s clients to make progress in decluttering.

Hager, right, recently met LeBlanc face to face for the first time. She’s been holding virtual sessions to help him manage his hoarding disorder. (CBC)

“Often, what we find with hoarding disorder is that the anxiety around the thoughts of letting go of something are actually much greater than what it really is when they do finally get rid of it,” Hager said.

But she’s worried about the people who haven’t sought help for their hoarding disorder during this pandemic.

“We are really nervous about what’s going to happen when everything opens up again,” Hager said.

“We know there are people out there who have not been getting any support from anyone and that they are suffering in silence.”

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