Task force hopes to help local hoarders

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April 24th, 2014

Omaha, NE — What do you give the woman who has everything? Shelves, according to Mary Thompson.

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“I’m a collector’s collector, but some people say I’m a hoarder,” Thompson said.

Thompson is a 72-year-old Omahan with an affinity for hats, cashmere sweaters, Coach purses, books, and antique silverware and jewelry.

Mary Thompson admires a set of antique spoons. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Mary Thompson admires a set of antique spoons. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

“When I look back I started wearing hats in the fourth grade. I started doing a lot of really heavy reading when I was in the fourth grade, and I started collecting my travel brochures in the fourth grade,” Thompson said. “So, fourth grade was my pivotal point. That’s where I started accumulating all these bad habits or are they bad habits. What’s a bad habit?”

A recent assessment by faculty and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Grace Abbott School of Social Work estimates that there are between 12,000 and 21,000 people who hoard living in and around Omaha.

Dr. Christiana Bratiotis is an assistant professor of social work at UNO and chair of the Omaha Hoarding Task Force. The group is made up of volunteers from varying organizations who focus on educating the community about compulsive hoarding disorder and who at one point or another may be called to assist with an intervention.

“Hoarding is, as I describe it, a metaphorical problem. So, as you physically begin to clear away the stuff you start to uncover what’s driving the saving and the acquiring of objects,” Bratiotis said. “People who live in hoarded environments are not people who are lazy or have no moral standards or can tolerate living in disgusting environments. These are people with mental illness and there is something driving. There is a reason they are holding on to those objects.”

Hoarding was designated as a standalone diagnosable mental illness in May 2011 by the American Psychiatric Association.

Thompson said she volunteered to appear on TLC’s reality television show “Hoarding: Buried Alive” five years ago at the urging of her children. She began to consider whether or not her propensity for collecting, was wreaking havoc on her personal life.

“I said ‘Oh, maybe I do have a problem.’ But the only way you can get any kind of help for anything– the first thing is to thine own self be true. You’ve got to say ‘Hey,I’ve got a problem. I have to do something about it,’” Thompson said.

Mary Thompson, who likes to collect paintings and pictures of flowers, points out one of her favorite works of art. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Mary Thompson, who likes to collect paintings and pictures of flowers, points out one of her favorite works of art. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Thompson describes decluttering her life as an ongoing process. She said working with an organizer and staying busy have been especially helpful.

“To quit going out and shopping…it became a ritual, but I have found other things. In the summer time I spend a lot more time in my garden. I do a lot of traveling. I do a lot of reading, and I do a lot of visiting,” she said.

Jen Baker is one of the graduate students who worked on the assessment. She said while there are several treatments options for people who hoard, there are few professionals to carry out the job.

“We have very, very few therapists or in home coaches right now who can go into a home and work with individuals, but we’re working over the next several months to provide training through the Omaha Hoarding Task Force to get more experts in this area to work with people that are in our community,” Baker said.

Bratiotis said the task force’s main objectives are to build the capacity for response in the Omaha metro, break down stereotypes and train members of the group to work with hoarders.

As for Thompson, she plans to keep packing boxes full of her collectibles to give to a local Good Will.

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