Theirs is a sad, sad story

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By Trinity Chua and Nicole Chang

Mei Yun*, 55, and Ya Zhu*, 67, will tell you, without rancour, to leave their flat alone.

When the sisters open the door, food crumbs linger on the table, flies dance on top. The one-room flat is stuffed with clothes, furniture, a mannequin, and an assortment of other items that have long lost their resemblance to their original state.

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Mei Yun, as she speaks about her brother.

The two sisters, who are seamstresses, have lived in a rental flat since February 2013. Ya Zhu explains: “People collect things, all sort of things, because they are lonely and poor, like us. You got to understand that we are not crazy.”

They are estranged from their siblings, and never married. “We used to share a four-bedroom apartment with our brother, until he kicked us out. That is why we have to squeeze all our things into this flat.”

“He threw us out because of his girlfriend, you know. After all we have done for him, taking care of him, cooking for him… now…” Mei Yun breaks off.

The growing social issue that is hoarding is not new. But hoarding is only a symptom of a bigger social problem – the unhappiness of isolated, lonely senior citizens.

The Health Promotion Board has reported over 27 cases of hoarding last year, all of the hoarders are elderly people. Before 2012, Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob said she had seen only four or five cases in the last 10 years.

At present, the current social work barely addresses the unhappiness and the emotional state of the hoarders, but house-cleaning efforts are heavily emphasised.

Jasslyn Tay, 22, recently cleaned out a hoarder’s place in Bedok. The SMU accounting student says: “I don’t think they will change. They will just keep finding new things to keep.

“I will continue to help clean out these places with relevant non-governmental organisations because if these places get dirtier, things can go out of hand. And it is not hygienic either.”

But the sisters’ retort: “There was this one social worker who wanted to clean our flat. She threw away the clothes I was sewing for a customer. She would not believe me when I said I needed those clothes for work. She just would not listen to me!”

Often thousands of dollars go into the cleaning effort but these agencies’ efforts may be futile, says Dr Rajesh Jacob, consultant in the Institute of Mental Health’s Department of General Psychiatry, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

“Hoarders whose homes are cleared without their consent often experience extreme distress and may become further attached to their possessions.

“This may lead to their refusal of future help. And then, the hoarding problem will recur, often within just a few months.”

Dr Rajesh explains, “Hoarding can be a symptom of psychiatric illnesses such as obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, intellectual disability or autism. Recently DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association classification of mental disorders) has included hoarding disorder as a separate diagnosis, in which hoarding leads to significant distress or impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning and it is not secondary to the above mentioned disorders”

“Hoarding leads to significant distress or impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning.”

What we need are mental health professionals at the community level, he says.

“In Western countries, there are support groups that are held regularly for people who hoard which are often led by a mental health professional.

“This involves firstly practising the removal of clutter with the help of a clinician or coach and then independently removing clutter. Community agencies and social workers in Singapore can be a first point of contact for this particular group.”

More importantly, community efforts must also include the time to hear them out. Like the sisters, many of the hoarders’ stories are sad cases of emotional loneliness.

Meet Nathan S, 63.

His flat is in an unlivable condition with clothes, including women’s clothes, a cash register, empty cans, leftover food and a bubble tea machine strewn across the floor of his home.

Nathan has family members actively involved in his life- his two siblings pay the bills for his one-room rental flat. He loves children, and goes around to play with his nephews and nieces. He spends hours with a kopitiam owner downstairs from his flat.

He dreams about having a girlfriend.

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Nathan showing us his posters

His walls are adorned with magazine and newspaper cut-outs of female models in lingerie and bikinis. He says, in a defeated tone, that no girl will want him, or to stay the night in a flat like his.

A social worker attributes this isolation of the hoarders to the state of the modern community.

“Singapore has lost the ‘kampung spirit’, most of us and the elderly included do not know their neighbours and have little to no social contact.”

Let alone know what their stories are.