The Catholic University of America

When They Can't Let It Go

Many people have had the experience, as a friend, relative or social worker, of entering an elderly person's home or apartment and staring aghast at an ocean of stuff, piled high on chairs, crammed into corners and overflowing from table tops.

Whether it's expired food, musty old newspapers, odd bits of string or tools that haven't been used in decades, the problem of hoarding is widespread, with consequences that go beyond just the hoarder and their immediate family.

In an effort to educate care-givers about the phenomenon, "Compulsive Hoarding: Legal, Ethical and Social Interventions" was held at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law on June 5. It was the third annual conference sponsored by the D.C. Office on Aging, Elder Abuse Prevention Committee in partnership with the Columbus School of Law. Eighty-eight social workers, case managers, home care workers, lawyers, judges, and representatives from D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells' office attended. The training was approved by the National Association of Social Workers for six continuing education hours.

Faith Mullen, a clinical assistant professor in CUA's clinical legal education program, served on the five-member planning committee, as did Dr. Barbara Soniat from The Catholic University School of Social Service. The program's many speakers examined the problem of hoarding from a variety of angles. The compulsive stockpiling of things that no longer serve a useful purpose creates many kinds of problems. Landlords who have no desire to evict elderly tenants may nonetheless be concerned about fire or other damage to their property caused by hoarding. Family members or social service workers often have little information to effectively confront the behavior.

CUA law professor Faith Mullen, at podium, helped plan the conference that addressed
what most care-givers regard as a growing problem.

The conference objectives included:

  • Sharing insights about the clinical interventions that are most likely to engage compulsive hoarders in a therapeutic relationship to reduce risk
  • Collecting stories, anecdotes and tips from attendees about the best psycho-social interventions in working with compulsive hoarders.
  • Discussing the cost of compulsive hoarding as it plays out in guardianship and landlord tenant proceedings.
  • Exploring the dilemma posed by the need to protect versus the need to respect self-determination with compulsive hoarders who do not recognize the risk of their behavior

Attendees included D.C. Superior Judges Stephanie Duncan Peters, Rhonda Reid-Winston, and Melvin Wright. Dr. Clarence Thomas, the director of the D.C. Office on Aging, was also present, as was CUA law alumna Linda O'Brian, who is a senior policy advisor for Councilman Wells. As in previous years, the 61 evaluations submitted by conference attendees this year were uniformly enthusiastic, generating such responses as "A well-organized workshop dealing with a difficult subject" and "this topic is always relevant to the work I do with my clients. It is a very important topic for discussion and it seems to be an increasing problem in the District."