By Mark Newman, News staff
We hear their stories from time to time; seniors living in filthy conditions with dozens of cats and rooms full of clutter.
They could very well have Diogenes Syndrome.
Typically, symptoms include self-neglect, lack of awareness or concern about bathing and other personal habits, untidiness, hoarding of trash and aloofness.
Some research suggests it is connected to the brain’s function when it comes to decision-making.
A two-day conference last month at the Michelangelo banquet centre hosted by Catholic Family Services (CFS) of Hamilton attempted top shine some light on the syndrome in our community.
“Research shows that one in every 2,000 persons would be exposed to the symptoms (of Diogenes Syndrome),” said Judit Zsoldos, team leader of the seniors intervention and support program at CFSH. “We think it’s much higher.”
Zsoldos noted that in almost every apartment building in the city you will find one person who suffers from Diogenes.
Through their Gatekeepers program, CFS counsellors and other staff help about 120 city seniors who have the syndrome each year.
The seniors are usually between 69 and 75 years of age and CFSH is usually called by a family member who is concerned about the health and welfare of an elderly relative.
Krista Washik is a case manager with the Gatekeepers program who works with seniors suffering from Diogenes Syndrome.
She noted they also frequently hear from hospitals about seniors displaying Diogenes symptoms or from public housing if an elderly tenant is facing eviction due to a foul odour coming from their unit and refusing to answer a knock at their door.
She said she has seen many instances where dozens of cats have been found in dwellings of seniors where the rooms are usually filthy and filled with trash or old and discarded items.
“They’ve withdrawn from the community,” Washik said. “They’ve withdrawn from friends and family.”
Many will survive on rotten food, Zsoldos noted. She said counsellors and staff will visit the senior’s home or apartment within five week days once they receive a call.
If necessary, they will visit the residence several times and speak to the person through the door until they develop a relationship and trust and so they can get inside.
“We don’t give up very easily,” Zsoldos said.
In cases where there is no response and they cannot hear anyone inside, they will contact the building superintendent or police to check on the senior to see if they are alright.
Ultimately, if the senior does not want help, Zsoldos said there is nothing they can do, although many do agree to some assistance, particularly if they are facing eviction.
CFS offers counselling and clean-up programs with the goal of allowing seniors to continue to live independently in their own homes or apartments.
And they follow up on their clients to make sure they haven’t relapsed into old habits.
“We have clients who’ve been cleaning up for three years now,” she said.
Zsoldos said their Gatekeepers program is available to anyone in the community over age 60. See www.cfshw.com for more information.
A related affect of Diogenes Syndrome is hoarding.
“Hoarding is a problem every
where, including Hamilton” said Dr. Karen Rowa, a psychologist at the Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University. “It’s probably five or six per cent of the population and that might be an underestimate.”
While many Diogenes sufferers are also hoarders, Rowa noted the two are not synonymous.
“(Hoarding) is a separate syndrome (but) there are some overlaps,” she said.
Rowa said researches are not 100 per cent certain about the causes of hoarding, but there are many factors to it.
“We do know that hoarding runs in families,” she said. “So there is probably a genetic and an environmental component where you learn to hoard from parents or inherit a genetic predisposition that makes you more likely (to be a hoarder).”
She said some people get pleasure out of hoarding.
“It feels exciting to find a deal, to stock up,” Rowa said.
Signs that someone is a compulsive hoarder include having rooms so full of possessions that can’t be used for anything else, dwellings that are so full of clutter it is almost impossible to get around and having clutter spill outside onto the lawn.