Once consumed by hoarding, she now helps others let go

Source: GLOBE CORRESPONDENT | By: Hattie Bernstein


“In a support group, there is help and hope. Your life will get better,” said Lorraine Gilmore, at home in Southborough.

For years, Lorraine Gilmore had been a pack rat.

In her Wellesley home, books, newspapers, and mail had piled up on the kitchen table, spreading across the counters like geological creep.

Knickknacks, scooped up during mindless bouts of retail therapy, found permanent residency everywhere. Clothes, with the tags still attached, hung forgotten in closets or were stuffed into drawers.

“This is out of control. You need to do something,” her future husband gently admonished.

But it would take several more years and an article, published in the Boston Globe in 2007, to put a name to what ailed her.

“Oh, my God! They have a name for this! It’s compulsive hoarding,” Gilmore had blurted out while reading the paper.

Gilmore enrolled in a federally funded study that offered individual treatment and peer support for the disorder. A decade later, the 76-year-old retired business recruiter and children’s book author now helps others who struggle with attachment to possessions that have taken over their homes and their lives.

“In a support group, there is help and hope. Your life will get better,” said Gilmore, who is now a peer educator for ClearPath, Marlborough Community Development Corporation’s monthly support group for individuals affected by compulsive hoarding.

Gilmore gives talks about the topic throughout the region. On Sept. 6 at 1:30 p.m., a DVD of one of her presentations will be the cornerstone of a free program about compulsive hoarding offered at the Natick Community-Senior Center.

Beginning Sept. 21, the Natick Human Services Division will also host a 15-week peer support group on Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the center on 117 East Central St.

It’s a journey that few can go alone. After completing her own treatment, Gilmore made the rounds of towns west of Boston, looking for a council on aging, human services office, or other agency that would welcome establishment of a peer support group.

Five years ago, the Marlborough Community Development Corporation stepped up to the plate, and with its backing, peer support groups have formed in Hudson, Natick, Sudbury, and Framingham.

“We had people traveling from Lincoln, Charlton, remote towns because there was nothing else available,” said Lynn Faust, executive director of Marlborough Community Development.

Across the state, about 25 local and regional task forces, under the umbrella of MassHousing, are involved in direct intervention, support groups, and related services. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership is running a program that utilizes case management and one-on-one, in-home support.

All of these programs share a common goal: In addition to education and practical and emotional support, they help people avoid eviction, accidents, fire, and unsanitary living conditions that can have dire consequences for them and their neighbors.

Compulsive hoarding disorder was first listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. It has been linked to stressful life events, including early loss and trauma, PTSD, addiction, and other mental illnesses. But it remains a condition few therapists are trained to treat.

“This is a serious, complicated disorder which deserves compassion,” said Gilmore, whose early attempts to find help were frustrating and lonely.

She said one therapist she visited told her to go home and “just throw out” her clutter. Another said the problem was an “issue at home.”

If only it were that easy.

“People see it [compulsive hoarding] as a moral failing or laziness, but it’s a complex mental health challenge,” said Jesse Edsell-Vetter, program manager at the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership’s Center for Hoarding Intervention.

He helps clients who are homeless, at risk of losing their housing vouchers, or living in properties they own.

Hoarding tends to affect a higher number of older people, probably because they’ve had more time to collect and save. The average age of a person seeking help or joining a peer support group is 50; those with the disorder generally live alone and may have other health complications as well, including memory loss, anxiety, and depression.

Gilmore’s presentation focuses on practical strategies, community resources, and the book “Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding,” by David Tolin, Randy Frost, and Gail Steketee.

Gilmore, who now lives in Southborough, says compulsive hoarding is like an addiction. She remembers how she felt one time when she helped another person clean out and wanted to take their stuff home.

“I’ve been through the book seven or eight times, and I always use a new sheet of paper to answer the questions, and I still have the same answers,” she said.

But as she sat at her kitchen table, clear save for a small stack of mail, she appraised the room with a level gaze.

“I wish I had a picture of every boxful that left the house,” she said, her face brightening as the afternoon sun slanted through a window.

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