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Clearing the clutter: Organizer sheds light on hoarders' mental health, safety issues

Leader-Telegram - 3/28/2017

March 28--An image popped up on the screen of a pink bathroom, but only the toilet was in view.

The bathtub, butted up against the bathroom's walls, was buried under piles of what professional organizer Kristin Bergfeld called "someday stuff" -- items that people who hoard say they will eventually find a use for.

"What's going on in the corner here?" Bergfeld asked as she pointed to a toilet tank with a missing cover.

A few guesses came from the audience of community members who attended her presentation at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at UW-Eau Claire's Old Library.

"That was where she did all her washing -- water from the toilet," Bergfeld revealed. "That's going to break your heart when you see that."

Bergfeld hails from New York and heads Bergfeld's Clearance Service, a nationally recognized professional organizing company that specializes in hoarding situations. She is credited with developing the Clutter-Hoarding Scale, which tracks hoarding's impact on the home and includes guidelines for professionals addressing the situation.

Her work has helped to illuminate the symptoms of hoarding that has recently been recognized as a disorder in its own category in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition, which is used by mental health professionals.

"It's not exactly the same as how we think of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), it has its own characteristics," said Cheryl Lapp, a UW-Eau Claire nursing professor who invited Bergfeld to speak to her graduate-level students as part of their course, Advanced Theory and Practice of Family Health Nursing.

Some members of the audience Monday were part of Eau Claire's hoarding task force comprised of fire and rescue personnel, professional organizers and others who are hoping to work together to declutter homes affected by hoarding, said Gary Puljas, a fire inspector with the Eau Claire Fire Department.

"We realize it's a disease and ask the people to get some help when we do run into them," he said. "We have quite a few; a lot more than I ever thought over the last 8 or 10 years of hoarders in Eau Claire and Eau Claire County."

The task force is still in the beginning stages, said task force member Nancy Rothwell, a professional organizer who owns Straighten-Up Organizing in Eau Claire.

In addition to developing a map with references of who can provide what services, the task force has also created an inspection checklist for possible areas to target for cleanup.

The task force also wants to develop a support group for people who hoard.

"We're still generating that whole process," Rothwell said.

Hoarding isn't just accumulating a lot of stuff. The disorder also factors in whether appliances and other items in the home are obstructed or can't be used for their intended purpose. It weighs whether the neglect of items is causing health problems for the people living in the home.

Bergfeld said that approaching the client in a nonjudgmental manner makes a difference in whether they accept help with cleaning up.

She likened hoarding to the human instinct to scavenge but cautioned a gentle approach, saying that dumping hoarded items will only amplify angry feelings and worsen the situation.

"Not everyone's tickled to have this done," she said, noting that the disorder can be very difficult on families.

In her 30 years as a professional organizer, Bergfeld has happened upon numerous homes that dabble in the extreme, from homeowners saving coffee cans "because they're going to quit making them" to folks who refuse to clean up piles of clothes because they're providing shelter for their friends -- mice.

One of Bergfeld's clients would lie on the floor and put two halves of cucumbers on her chest. The next morning, teeth marks from the mice were visible in the vegetable.

"See, they're still here! I thought they would leave me -- they're still here," Bergfeld said, recalling the response from one of her clients.

Another client with numerous yellow pairs of shoes said she had to buy them from the QVC online shopping network because the host looks at her. She would lose his friendship, she said, if she didn't buy the shoes.

"Isolation, depression is a big part of this," Bergfeld said. "So eager to have company, where she was so isolated."

Traumas, or radical changes in someone's life can trigger someone into a hoarding lifestyle, Bergfeld said.

While hoarders vary in gender, occupation and age -- though they're generally older than 40 years old -- they share many common traits such as high levels of intelligence. They also have a need to stay informed.

Bergfeld makes it a point to ask clients what items they absolutely don't want touched, and she respects their wishes.

Clients are more likely to see her in a favorable light and allow her to help if they see her respecting their space.

Contact: 715-833-9206, elizabeth.dohms@ecpc.com, @EDohms_LT on Twitter

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(c)2017 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

Visit the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.) at www.leadertelegram.com

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