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HDI In The News / August 2013

New Milford Woman’s Lonely Death Casts Spotlight on Compulsive Hoarding

August 14, 2013


New Milford Woman’s Lonely Death Casts Spotlight on Compulsive Hoarding

Tuesday, April 16, 2013    Last updated: Thursday April 18, 2013, 2:01 PM

The Record

Nothing was too worn or too frivolous for Alice Klee. The 68-year-old woman accumulated rooms full of knickknacks, clothing, tote bags, garbage, and even three dated TVs in one room alone.

Over the past two years, the unmarried retiree became distanced from her family, who knew she collected piles of stuff but never imagined that she would ultimately be found dead, partially mummified, under a mountain of her own clothes and garbage.

“I don’t know what was sadder — the fact she lived like that or the fact that she had nobody to reach out to and nobody checked on her,” said New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro. “I think people are going to have to start paying attention to mental health issues in the communities.”

Hoarding, a condition that typically affects older women, involves the compulsive accumulation of objects and animals. It often remains undiscovered until a crime, a tragedy or a natural disaster lays bare the full extent of the problem. And as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement and beyond, the disorder is becoming more commonplace — so much so that the American Psychiatric Association plans to designate it as a distinct mental illness next month. Previously hoarders had been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

“Now we have the criteria to say a person doesn’t just have quirks, they’re not just dirty or odd but they have a psychiatric illness,” said Marcie Cooper, a social worker and caregiver who operates The Hoarding Disorder Institute in Fair Lawn. “This problem is so prevalent. It’s unbelievable, but it’s hidden. And it’s a secret problem, but it’s all over.”

Cooper, on Tuesday, held a training session for caregivers, lawyers and other professionals who work with senior citizens. The event, sponsored by the Northern New Jersey Senior Care Network, was intended to help caregivers identify hoarders, why they hold on to items like newspapers, magazines, clothing and food, and how to help them.

Klee’s lifestyle and tragic death epitomizes the definition of a hoarder. Most are women, aged 60 to 70, but the problem can begin as early as the teenage years. It progresses over time, with the person accumulating unnecessary items for years before the “secret” is uncovered by emergency responders, caregivers and law enforcement, Cooper said.

“People don’t believe that this exists, but we’re seeing it more and more,” Papapietro said. “In a country such as ours, that this exists is terrible.”

Superstorm Sandy “blew the lid” off the hidden culture of hoarders, Cooper said on Tuesday. As Federal Emergency Management Agency officials tried to help victims rid their damaged homes of debris along the Jersey Shore, they discovered some to be hoarders who would not part with their belongings or leave their homes, Cooper said.

People amass items, she said, because of emotional problems that make them more attached to “things, not people.”

“They believe they need to keep their items from harm and are extensions of themselves,” she told the group gathered at the Valley Home Care Dorothy B. Kraft Center in Paramus.

Hoarders also have difficulty making decisions, categorizing and organizing material and gauging their true needs.

In Klee’s case, she appeared to know that she had acquired far too many things – even stuff from trash cans – said her 99-year-old neighbor, Blanche Layne.

“She was getting rid of a lot of stuff,” Layne said. “She was clearing out everything. She said she was going to call the Salvation Army and get rid of it.”

Klee, who had several cats, was declared missing in February. Previous visits to the home by family and police the past three months failed to locate her. A Bergen County K-9 unit searched the woods outside her home while Bergen County Animal Control officials were in and out of the apartment in the weeks after her disappearance to locate any animals.

Her half-mummified body was discovered last week beneath a pile of garbage, clothing and blankets in her bedroom by her landlord, who was cleaning the apartment after she failed to pay rent.

The cause of death was a “cardiac event,” Papapietro said.

A glimpse on Tuesday into her ground-floor apartment in a three-story building on Main Street and Prospect Avenue revealed dingy rooms with piles of plastic bags, tote bags, clothing, pillows, televisions and a cat kennel. On one shelf was a book called “Home Remedies for Dogs and Cats.”

Short of removing all the belongings from her home – which Papapietro said he didn’t believe police had the legal authority to do – “I don’t see anything more we could have done” to find her, he said.

He said he plans to ask the borough attorney to review a recent state Supreme Court decision that prevents police officers from entering homes to check on residents without consent, a warrant or reason to believe there is an emergency.

Staff Writer Jay Levin contributed to this article.

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