VHA launches Virtual Hoarding Support to help isolated clients amid COVID-19

With in-person gatherings at an all-time low, isolation has become a challenge for many as physical distancing measures in Ontario continue in order to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Isolation is even more difficult for vulnerable populations, like those living with hoarding disorder. For severe cases, the disorder can create unsafe living environments, further alienation from friends and family, and potential risk of eviction.

For those who identify as living with hoarding disorder, help through organizations like VHA Home HealthCare (VHA) is absolutely essential. That’s why VHA launched virtual Hoarding Support Services, to help clients stay safe, give them a way to stay connected, find community, and continue working toward their goals throughout the pandemic.

“Decluttering is a journey,” says Hoarding Services Client Diana Opolski. “For years, I couldn’t tackle it. I was stuck.”

After struggling on her own for some time, she knew she needed more support. Diana first began receiving services from VHA’s Volunteer Hoarding Support program four years ago. 

After moving into a smaller space, Diana says her belongings piled up 3 feet high across her apartment, and remarks that a repairman once refused work there, claiming it was unsafe to do his job without a clear pathway.

She made a lot of progress as her services finished up. However, earlier this year, she felt stuck once again, unsure of how to continue the process.

She felt she needed to reach out to the Toronto Hoarding Support Services Network (THSSN,) a group including VHA and 16 partner organizations who joined forces to help Toronto area residents with problematic hoarding. 

The network is funded by the City of Toronto and provides much-needed services to help and support vulnerable residents in managing clutter while providing the emotional support required to live safely.

Diana Opolski
Diana Opolski, Hoarding Support Services Client. Photo Courtesy of Diana Opolski.
Through THSSN, Diana reconnected with VHA, but after her first in-home visit, the COVID-19 lockdown started. Diana was one of many clients left feeling unsure if she would continue to receive support. In an effort to respond to the changing needs in the community and keep everyone as safe as possible, VHA’s Community Support team quickly switched gears to begin providing virtual support to clients in need.

 The team is now running telephone coaching sessions to guide clients through their decluttering and keep them on track throughout lockdown. They also invited clients to join a new virtual workshop group to share lived experiences with each other and go through exercises to help achieve their goals at home.

“I was very motivated, so it worked for me. It wasn’t as easy when I started four years ago,” says Diana. “For each telephone visit, I would decide – what needs to be dealt with and what can I deal with physically and mentally today?”

“That attitude is key when it comes to addressing hoarding tendencies,” says VHA’s Lucie Hager, Associate Regional Manager, Community Support.

“The sessions are really about exploring a lot of the emotions that come up when someone is decluttering and getting them to develop those habits on their own,” says Lucie.

“Part of the challenge of hoarding disorder is that clients know what to do and how to do it, and they know they should do it, but it’s really hard. When they’re on their own, they just can’t, so the support of the coaching sessions and especially the virtual workshop group sessions are a big help,” she added.

When it comes to virtual visits, VHA Hoarding Support Coach Roberto Bruno notes that while the lack of in-person visits presents new barriers, particularly for those with mobility challenges, the virtual model is very similar to an in-person approach, where clients are empowered to take on the challenge rather than feel shamed into decluttering.

Diana's progress from May 2020- August 2020
Diana's decluttering progress from May- August 2020 with help of virtual hoarding support through VHA. Photos courtesy of Diana Opolski

“I listened, provided guidance and encouraged Diana to explore the more emotionally challenging items while I was on the phone with her to help her stay on course,” he says.

As he approaches every visit, he observes general mood and anxiety levels, checks in about goals and also offers resources and exercises between weekly visits.

With support like this through VHA and THSSN, Diana’s been able to sort and declutter nearly everything she owns. Diana’s virtual workshop group sessions are wrapping up, but she plans on continuing to host weekly virtual meetings with other VHA clients so that they can help each other stay on track.

“VHA has been absolutely key. We weren’t sure how virtual care would go, but it was great. The presence of another person helps, even on the phone,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to get it done without Roberto.”

Diana is now back in college as a mature student pursuing a second career in social work, where she plans to apply her lived experience with hoarding towards helping others who are also struggling with it.

“I think it’s a lot more widespread than we know, but many are too ashamed to talk about it,” says Diana. “I hope to help people like me when I graduate.”