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Hoarding - more than just a pile of problems (Part 6)

Piles of boxes (Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash)
Piles of boxes (Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash)

Another family that came to O’Joy’s attention was the Wee family. Paul Wee, 55-yr-old, turned up at O’Joy’s doorstep one day, dressed in a white shirt held together by paper clips. He smelled as though he had not showered for days. He said he suffered from epilepsy and asked O’Joy to help him apply for financial assistance and to find a job. He also had some accommodation issues with his family.

Paul revealed that he graduated from a prestigious secondary school in Singapore and had worked for several years before epilepsy prevented him from working. He was currently being paid by his church as a gospel worker, distributing pamphlets to the public. He had been living with his parents all his life and wanted to live alone in his own flat. He said his father used his and his brother’s names to purchase a 5-room HDB flat but refused to let him live there, which was why he reported his father to the police and sought help from his MP. Paul had also reached out to various agencies including a family service centre (FSC) and a psychiatric rehabilitation centre. O’Joy counsellor asked for permission to speak with his father, but Paul was not keen, claiming his father would beat him with his cane. He was, however, agreeable for the counsellor to speak with the FSC social worker. After obtaining a different perspective from the FSC social worker, O’Joy counsellor decided to pay a visit to Paul’s parents, 86-year-old Mr Wee and 83-year-old Mrs Wee.

Mr Wee welcomed counsellor warmly into the 5-room HDB unit under Paul’s name. Small-built, thin and frail, he walked slowly using a walking stick to steady himself. The marble floor was layered with dust and the expensive-looking sofa was mouldy. There were boxes and antiques stacked near the balcony, blocking the entrances to two bedrooms. The air was stale as all windows were closed. No one had been staying in this unit and Mr Wee was using it to store some of his belongings, mainly antiques. He said that Paul and his brother who was living overseas, never contributed a single cent to the purchase of the unit and he paid for it completely. Mr Wee further explained why Paul needed to live with him and his wife: they knew how to help him whenever he had his epileptic fits. If Paul were to live alone and suffered a fit at night without anyone to help him, he might die. He then invited counsellor to the unit three of them had been living for the past 8 years. It was next to Paul’s unit.

The counsellor’s account painted a shocking picture:

“Even before I could step into the unit, I was taken aback by how crowded the flat was. There were boxes piled up to the ceiling, taking more than half the space of the dining room. On the outside of the boxes were S-hooks, in chains, and on the S-hooks were plastic bags, layers and layers of plastic bags. The boxes loomed over my head and plastic bags hung precariously, as though they could fall on me at any moment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw cockroaches scuttling from boxes to boxes.”

The balcony was completely inaccessible due to the columns of boxes. All the boxes belonged to Paul and contained gospel pamphlets. Paul started collecting them when he became a gospel worker. His last discharge from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) was 6 years ago when he was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy and hypomania. He was not compliant with his medication and his parents had difficulty managing his condition on top of their frail health. There was a deck chair at the entrance to the master bedroom, leaving just enough space for Mrs Wee to manoeuvre her walking frame. Paul’s room was barely accessible, needing to climb over a few items to get in. It was hard to fathom how Paul’s parents could get in to rescue him when he had fits. Another bedroom belonging to Paul’s brother was completely closed off and contained belongings he left behind when he moved overseas.

In the living room, there was a sofa where the elderly couple could sit to watch TV shows, but the rest of the space was taken up by piles and piles of newspapers. Mr Wee used to be a civil servant. He enjoyed keeping records of important news in his notebooks. He had a daughter who was married with children and living apart in Singapore. He wanted to leave his recordings, the newspapers and his antiques to his grandchildren. On the sofa were little plastic bags, containing titbits belonging to Mrs Wee. It appeared that all three of them were hoarders and their hoarding caused serious safety concerns such as fire and tripping hazards as well as injuries due to objects falling from heights.

Even though Mr Wee was aware of the risks, he dared not alert HDB to help him declutter their home as he was worried that Paul may become aggressive and harm them if his things were removed without his knowledge. Paul had charged at Mr Wee previously when Mr Wee tried to throw Paul’s empty cartons down the rubbish chute, and Mr Wee had to use his walking stick to defend himself from Paul.

Before O’Joy could embark on further work with the family, Paul was admitted to IMH repeatedly, his mother passed away shortly from a chronic illness, and Mr Wee was hospitalized due to lung infection. Eventually, Paul was permanently housed in a psychiatric institution and Mr Wee was placed in a private nursing home. O’Joy counsellor followed up with counselling for Mr Wee for his bereavement, adjustment to nursing home and other grief and loss issues.

It was most unfortunate that for this family, the issue resulting from mental illness and hoarding could not be easily resolved and the outcome was death or institutionalization for the individual and family members. It might have helped if Paul’s sister alerted social service agencies to the issue before it snowballed to the extent it did. It might have helped if the church monitor Paul’s work as a gospel worker and not give him boxes of pamphlets without being aware of how he was storing them. However, even with the involvement of a family service centre and a psychiatric rehabilitation centre, it was still not easy to work with families with issues involving mental illness and hoarding, especially if it involves caregiving by elderly parents with frailty and health issues, and elder abuse.

(All names are not real, and details have been changed to protect the identity of these families)

Written by Chew Yat Peng, principal counsellor at O'Joy


This concludes our 6-part series on Hoarding - more than just a pile of problems. We hope that you found it educational and insightful, and gained another perspective of looking at hoarding - which is often just the tip of the iceberg of deeper hidden issues.

If you would like to help us in our work with more seniors like Paul and his parents, you can do so via the Donate button on the top right corner.


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