The (he)art of de-cluttering
Updated: Jul 22
This story would not have been possible without the support of our community partner Montfort Care and social worker Gina Peh. We'd like to express our deep gratitude for collaborating with us on this Project HomeWorks case and story.
Social worker Gina Peh couldn’t have said it better when she said de-cluttering of flats for homeowners with hoarding tendencies cannot happen overnight. As difficult as it is to predict the right combination of factors for successful de-cluttering, the process of change cannot start without the fundamental influence of understanding and trust.
Gina had been working with 39-year-old Shirley and her elderly mother Mdm Foo since their case was first referred to Montfort Care’s GoodLife@Telok Blangah, an elderlcare service, in August 2019. Shirley was diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder in 2010 and has been receiving regular treatment at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
“Because of the side effects of the medications, she experiences body aches and fatigue. Hence, she spends most of her time resting on her bed and relies on her mother, Mdm Foo for her daily meals,” Gina explained.
With Shirley incapacitated, their state of their home declined steadily with Mdm Foo’s deteriorating health condition. Tight living space in an already small one-room rental flat slowly disappeared under years of collecting kitchen towels, toilet paper, plastic bags, newspapers, empty cans and jars
“Based on my observation, the clutter is mostly contributed by Mdm Foo. One of the main things that she has – kitchen towel & toilet papers. Due to her incontinence issue, these items provide her sense of security,” said Gina.
The current clutter and strong urine stench in the house has started to become a point of friction between the two women, resulting in arguments.
But for Mdm Foo, like many in her generation who believed in working hard to save for rainy days, the collection of items in the house was simply a physical expression of that ethos.
“All these things I bought with my own money and it’s difficult to just throw away everything. Especially now when I don’t even have money to buy,” said Mdm Foo.
When she was younger, Mdm Foo was an unbelievably hard worker. She used to help run her parents’ food stall, working more than 12 hours every day without rest days. At one point, she even worked a second night shift job for 3 years.
“I would work the night shift, come home and go to work in the market the next morning without any sleep. Then I go home at 8pm at night to shower to go back to my night shift job. I did this for 3 years until I collapsed,” shared Mdm Foo.
“I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in my 40s. I was so silly. I worked everyday without rest, and I worked until my body gave up,” she added.
Today, Mdm Foo said she can’t do anything that involves standing up for long periods of time because of chronic pain. She was also scheduled for an operation on 7 July to help start her upcoming kidney dialysis treatment.
With this timeline in mind, Gina knew it was time to reach out to Project HomeWorks. She said: “Previous attempts (to de-clutter) did not succeed because Mdm Foo did not see the need to have a clean environment as she has been living in the current condition for years. However, with the upcoming surgery, she was aware of the importance of having a clean living environment.”
The de-cluttering and rehabilitating process was spread over 2 Project HomeWorks sessions for a pace that would be comfortable for Mdm Foo. During the first session,our staff team focused on working with her to discard expired food, empty plastic bags, newspapers and jars. Edible food and medication were sorted by dates of expiry and organised into storage boxes based on frequent use of items.
When floor space was reclaimed after all the sorting and packing, our staff team was able to help intensively clean the home during the second session.
“There is often a misconception about de-cluttering as people assume that the volunteers would throw things without asking the owners. However, I witnessed the respect from the (Habitat Singapore) staff towards Shirley and Mdm Foo, for example, checking in with them regarding each item during the session. The genuine care and concern provided much assurance and I could see that it helped to ease Mdm Foo’s anxiety,” said Gina.
Looking ahead to future goals, Gina shared that Shirley has found motivation to upkeep her space in the house through social media and their next step is working towards finding her gainful employment.
As for Mdm Foo, Gina said: “I would say for Mdm Foo to agree to receive external help is a huge step for her as she recognises the issue that needs to be addressed.”
Shirley and Mdm Foo’s case is another clear example of how Habitat Singapore and Project HomeWorks is just one thread in the whole web of the social safety net supporting vulnerable Singaporeans.
For us at Habitat Singapore, it's a privilege to work alongside like-minded social workers like Gina and community partners like Montfort Care to play our part in providing comprehensive support of Singaporeans in need.