In many of the hoarding cases that Habitat for Humanity Singapore comes across, the accumulation of things in the house is usually triggered by emotional or psychological episodes of a person’s life and the items almost always have emotional attachments.
For Mdm Lai, the items she had accumulated in her house started after her husband passed away over 30 years ago. Widowed in her 40s, Mdm Lai found herself living alone in their 3-room flat in Toa Payoh while her daughter and the rest of her family were back in her hometown of Kuala Lumpur.
“When my husband died, then I started working as a cleaner, because I didn’t have much of an education. Since I started working, I didn’t really stop,” Mdm Lai shared.
“After I finish work, I wouldn’t go home immediately. I’d go out to eat and walk around. I’ll just see things that I would buy (like) clothes, bags, towels.”
L-R: Original state of Mdm Lai's living room, front bedroom & kitchen
Gesturing to show how she crawled on top of everything to get around the house, Mdm Lai said the saving grace of having a cluttered house was the items would break her fall whenever she lost her balance.
As her eyesight and arthritis worsened with age, the state of her house also spiralled out of control.
“There were just too many things & I didn’t have the ability to clear it all alone. I would go to work, come home and just leave whatever I bought.
L-R: Items uncovered during the decluttering process - vintage calendar, Mdm Lai's wedding photos, vinyl records
When Project HomeWorks volunteers arrived at her house for the first time in January, they recalled piles of items covering the entire floor of the house.
“It was a struggle just to enter the house. The door couldn’t fully open,” said volunteer Mr Chan. Another fellow volunteer Eric described the pile to be about 60cm high and discovered bugs he had never seen before in his life.
“All these years I’ve stayed here, (my neighbours) didn’t know I had so many things in my house,” Mdm Lai shared. The state of her house went undetected as she made sure never to leave her windows or door open.
It was only after her arthritis became severe enough that she had to stop working 3 months ago and she confided to a neighbour who linked her up with a social worker from the Agency of Integrated Care (AIC).
After years of keeping to herself, it took a lot of coaxing over several sessions by Habitat Singapore staff to build enough trust for Mdm Lai to grow comfortable with the decluttering process.
During the 6th session with Mdm Lai, Habitat Singapore invited the very first group of volunteers back to come back & witness the slow transformation of the house.
In January when they first started, our volunteer Eric shared that their strategy was to clear enough to make a pathway from the door to the bedroom and kitchen at the back. Today, Mdm Lai has not only reclaimed space in her home but also her happiness.
“I think today we’ve achieved a milestone. She now has a reading or relax room where she can go down memory lane (with her photo albums),” Eric added.
“I think the most delightful thing is to see her become more cheerful from our first session. Initially she was reluctant to let us in but (now) she’s very happy to be able to move around and enjoy her space,” added Mr Chan.
L-R: Before & after of Mdm Lai's front bedroom
Sitting in her newly created reading room, surrounded by photo albums & framed pictures of her wedding day, Mdm Lai said: I’ve also dreamt of my house being this clean. The biggest change has been you coming to help. If you hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”