Voices of COHP
My mother acquired a UTI, which worsened to a bladder and kidney infection, then she developed septicemia. She was in the hospital for two weeks, and then released to a nursing home. During this time my brothers and sisters decided what we should do next.
We shared with nurses and her doctor and the hospital human service worker our terrible family secret. My mother is a hoarder. Hoarding diminished her life. It compromised her marriage, it distanced her children. It stole her health and independence prematurely. We shared pictures, and a few of our stories.
My mother also suffers from Alzheimer's. Had my mother good work habits, her long term memory might have had a few more good years of independence. As it was, the hoard was getting the better of her; she was never very good at taking care of herself. If she had a cleaner bathroom and a more sanitary kitchen, if she would throw away old food, or not store leftovers in a filthy fridge, she may never had acquired a UTI in the first place. She might have postponed the crisis.
We had powers of attorney for health care and finances. We had tried to help her, but she does not take help from us very well. We had hired some caregivers, but they would quit after a short time, as it is hard to work around all the stuff. My mom would also accuse them of theft, when she could not find things.
I must say that if you met my mom, your first thought would be "what a nice lady." She is a bit frumpy and she does not shower enough, but old people can be forgiven for fear of falling in the shower. And unless you got into a long discussion, you might not notice the cognitive difficulties she was hiding.
We were advised to get an attorney. And the attorney suggested a declaration of incompetence. It is a big gun, but it was not the first thing we tried, and nothing was working.
First thing: Do not clean up until the ink is dried, until the legal guardian has given written permission, and the guardian ad litem knows what is happening. This is important, because you can get into trouble for trespassing and theft, and there is a lag time where there is nothing to do but wait. The hoard can sit, as it has for decades, a few more weeks will not make much difference.
Second thing: Take pictures. Especially the kitchen and bathroom, but even take a picture of the room where the door cannot open, just note that this door is blocked and can only open 6 inches wide. Take pictures of entrances and exits.
Our attorney asked for a list of all the people who knew there was problem. Friends, neighbors, relatives, EMTs, caregivers, her dentist, doctor, nurses, bankers, etc. The people will be called upon to testify to make the case. EMTs are especially helpful as they can describe the smell, the clutter and the difficulty to maneuver. So are former caregivers, who can say what difficulties they had with her care. For instance, my mom liked to hang up her adult diapers, which she did not like to use all the time and let them dry and then reuse them. (My mom is currently in assisted living, and they still must read her the riot act and force her to shower.) Bankers can give information on her bill paying habits, and in our case how erratic they became.
Our mother’s friends did not think we were doing well by our mom. Our mom had a habit of complaining about us to them. Our mom also had an attorney. During the court proceeding, we were painted as ungrateful children, who never spent any time with her, would not let her see her grandchildren, and wanted to take our mother to the cleaners for every last cent. We did let our mother live as she chose for as long as possible. I think it seemed like our distance was seen as indifference.
The judge did not appear to be persuaded that she was incompetent. The bank believed that the house would be headed for foreclosure. (That our mother squandered her home of equity in her old age was another symptom.) I think it was a social worker who described hoarding as a disease, and she may have convinced the judge that we did everything we could think of to help our mother. Ultimately, incompetence was the ruling.
We got our mother into assisted living. Trying to get her on Medicaid when her funds dwindled was a challenge. The house had to be on the market, and we had to sell the house for market value, and no sane person would buy a house in that condition for that price. We cleaned the hoard, spiffed up the house. We found a realtor who would hold the house on the market at the assessed value, but only showed it to people who might want to flip.
While cleaning the hoard, we found things that indicated that my mother’s problems were even greater than we had originally thought. We never threw away documents and papers, we found bills, checks, evaporated gift cards, money, coins, important documents, wedding rings, among the detritus. We found an annuity that our mother had bought from a “financial planner” that my mother thought was a really wonderful guy. She bought him some gifts, too. Who would sell an annuity to an elderly woman that would not mature for 14 years? It amounted to an interest free loan to the company, and all the salesman had to do what wait for her to kick the bucket and he would have been the beneficiary. My mom also appeared to be on several sucker lists. She got a lot of phone calls asking for money, and letters urgently requesting funds.
The annuity salesman, who was the son of one of my mom’s friends, thought that my mom was estranged from her children. He had no idea that there were 7 of us, one being an accountant, another who married a lawyer. We sued. We got the same judge that declared my mom incompetent. The same judge that had been assured by the court appointed guardian ad litem that we were not mismanaging our mother’s funds. This time we did not look like uncaring children trying to take our mother to the cleaners. The financial planner had picked the wrong elderly woman to fleece. We had him dispatched. That flim flam artist will not take advantage of any other vulnerable elderly person ever again.
Having someone declared incompetent is not an easy prospect. We probably would not have had a leg to stand on, had my mother not been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, without my mother being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people, without a life-threatening health crisis that her doctors said was worsened, if not caused by hoarding. Our motives were questioned, as they should be. And truth be told, mistakes were made on both sides of the table. Our mother cleaned up good, and she presented better than she actually was. My brothers and sisters presented in a less than flattering light. I did not envy the task before the judge.
Throughout the entire ordeal, I have come to terms, and I found out how deeply I love my mother. No one has ever angered me or hurt me as deeply as mom. But through it all, I have forgiven her. Sometimes I forgive her on a daily basis. I have honored her by protecting her and breaking the secret of hoarding. The truth will set you free (John 8:32), but first it will piss you off. Gloria Steinem said that, true dat Gloria.
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