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But hoarding experts say that quick forced cleanouts often do more harm than good to the resident's mental state. Effective treatment for hoarding takes a year on average, says Gail Steketee, a hoarding expert and the dean of Boston University's School of Social Work. As with many other disorders, the first step is to recognize the problem. Hoarders often suffer from something called clutter blindness. Lorraine, a 68-year-old retiree who lives in Massachusetts and asked that we not print her last name, realized only recently that she has been a hoarder for more than three decades. In her home office, stacks of papers reach nearly to the ceiling, and she has to shimmy through a tiny corridor to reach her computer.
But she has started to dig out. Last fall Lorraine finished a 20-week group-therapy program run by Boston University, and since then she has been working once a week with a coach who helps her decide what to discard. It's a slow process. Says Lorraine: "It's like trying to shovel sand off the beach with a teaspoon."
Some task forces sprang up because city officials didn't know how to deal with hoarders. "Now everyone knows what to do or whom to call so they're not just passing the buck," says Krista Lovette, a founding member of the four-year-old task force in Wichita, Kans., who helps run a county elder-care program. And with education comes understanding and empathy for the hoarders. "We're not there to strong-arm them," Lovette says. "We're there to help them."
Horning remembers watching five years ago as a cleaning crew removed the teetering piles of newspapers from Gray's home, a radical step to keep her from being evicted. "I could feel her sadness because they were bagging up these papers," says Horning. "To her, they were a lot of interesting articles that she wanted to get back to reading." Within months, Gray began to hoard again.
This time around, Gray recognizes that she has a problem and wants to be involved in the cleaning process. Horning visits once a week to focus Gray's efforts. All of the pressing safety concerns have been eliminated, but a lot of work remains to be done. Most of the surfaces are still covered with double-knotted plastic bags. A stack of newspapers clutters the end of Gray's bed, and she sleeps nestled among bags of clean clothes.
Gray trusts Horning and follows her advice. Today they sit at her table talking and laughing like old friends, as Gray ices her bum knee with a Ziploc bag of frozen chicken tenders. The bag is dated June 2003. When asked if it might be time to throw the chicken out, Gray giggles and says, "Yeah."