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GCC hoarding conference Wednesday looks at solutions

— In handling hoarding cases, where a person’s compulsive collecting and inability to discard belongings causes items to pile high on available surfaces throughout a home, the best response combines both therapy and physical cleanup, according to experts in the field.

But because experts are still developing the best strategies for tackling the hoarding problem, health officials or emergency responders may not know how to proceed or what resources to offer a person, said Glen Ayers, regional heath agent for many Franklin County towns.

To answer some questions and reveal new findings of a hoarding-related study, the Western Massachusetts Hoarding Task Force will host an all-day conference Wednesday, at Greenfield Community College.

Ayers said that members of the regional task force — and local task forces in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties — have been planning the “Hoarding: Motivation for Change” conference for the past year.

There isn’t data available to illustrate the local problem, but it is very real, said Ayers, who could think of a dozen houses with hoarding problems within a five-minute walk of downtown Greenfield. It’s a problem that takes a deep psychological toll on those directly affected, but also poses a safety risk for others, he said.

When emergency responders visit a home — and walk through rooms indistinguishable from one another, essentially traveling in tunnels that move through old belongings, trash and animal feces — they are entering a “death trap,” said Ayers.

But he said if code enforcement officials simply come in, seize the home and take the residents to court, they are not attacking the real problem: the individuals’ psychological issues that, if treated, could help people rather than hurt them more.

“This conference is geared toward bringing all these agencies together and figuring out how to respond on a community level,” said Ayers.

The conference will include a presentation by Randy Frost and Lee Shuer, two men who organized a self-help support group: “Buried in Treasures Workshop.” Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, led the 15-session hoarding support group with Shuer, the peer services coordinator for regional behavioral health agency ServiceNet. They hosted groups in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties and will report their findings on the program’s effectiveness on Wednesday.

The presentation will be followed by a panel discussion, with support group participants sharing their stories.

Frost will also present the latest national research on hoarding, including its recent classification as its own disorder in the upcoming edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Psychologist Christopher Overtree and research coordinator Lauren Wadsworth will speak about a therapeutic decluttering program — created in 2009 to provide resources for therapists working with hoarding problems.

And then, participants can choose from three panels that target different audiences: therapists, service personnel and housing and health code enforcement professionals.

About 175 people from all over the state are attending the event, said Ayers. There have been conferences like this in the state before, he said, but not in western Massachusetts and not annually.

Registration is required and costs $75 per person — money that will go directly toward funding local hoarding task forces, said Ayers. Some continuing education credits will be offered for licensed professionals.

The event includes breakfast and lunch, starts at 8:30 a.m. and wraps up around 4 p.m. The snow date is the following day.

To learn more or to register, go to www.cvent.com/d/ncqdsk.

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