Joint govt effort to better unclutter lives of hoarders

Joint govt effort to better unclutter lives of hoarders
A one-room flat in Marsiling packed with random items hoarded over the years.

SINGAPORE - Several government agencies have come together to deal more effectively with the growing problem of elderly people who clutter their flats with numerous items they hoard.

They collect cardboard boxes, plastic bags, canned food, newspapers and umbrellas and, in the worst cases, stack them up from floor to ceiling, making it impossible to move around freely inside their flat.

The Sunday Times understands that those involved in the new task force, led by the Ministry of National Development, are the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social and Family Development, the police, the Housing Board (HDB), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), National Environment Agency (NEA) and People's Association.

Also involved is the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), because hoarding can be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder or dementia.

The new task force will work with community groups to identify those who hoard, clean up their flats, which can be potential fire traps, and send them for medical treatment if they need it.

It allows the different bodies to tackle the issue "in a more coordinated and sustainable manner", a National Development Ministry spokesman told The Sunday Times.

Currently, residents are simply advised by HDB officers to remove items, the spokesman said, adding: "For compulsive cases, the HDB will work with social workers, grassroots leaders and the SCDF to provide counselling and help."

Up till now, problem hoarders were dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, said Ms Julia Lee, director of Touch Community Services' Seniors Activity Centre.

If items caused obstruction in public spaces, such as common corridors, the town council would step in. The NEA would be alerted if hoarding caused an infestation of pests, such as cockroaches. If the items were deemed a fire hazard, the SCDF would get involved.

Ms Lee said: "It is important to address hoarding, as the clutter may affect health and safety, cause conflict with family and neighbours, or is a sign of isolation and loneliness."

Voluntary welfare organisations welcomed the joint effort by the task force, given the serious problems hoarding can cause.

Doctors at IMH treated a 50-year-old woman who lived in a three-room flat in Toa Payoh that was so cluttered with junk that every time she needed to shower, she had to move items out of her bathroom.

She had a decade's worth of newspapers, old electrical appliances and umbrellas, among other things. The flat was so packed that she ended up sleeping in the corridor.

The woman has improved with treatment, and is no longer hoarding items. The town council has cleared out her flat.

Social workers from Touch, who visited 600 flats in two rental blocks in Geylang Bahru over the past two years, found 30 with significant hoarding or self-neglect.

The number referred to the IMH for hoarding has increased gradually over the years, said its consultant Rajesh Jacob, though figures are not available.

From January to last month, HDB also received feedback on 23 hoarding cases, the same number it handled for the whole of last year.

These figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, said those who work closely with the elderly, because cases go unreported, or those who exhibit such behaviour refuse to seek treatment.

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